Clutch plays by Alyssa Marin and Jessica Grant hold off big comeback by the Dons
Alexis Whitfield capped her first start as a UC Santa Barbara women’s basketball player with an unexpectedly exciting finish.
The senior forward scored seven of her career-high 22 points in the final 6:04 to help the Gauchos survive a ferocious comeback by the University of San Francisco and win their season opener 87-75 at the Thunderdome on Tuesday night.
“I’ve been excited since our season ended last year, waiting for this home game,” said Whitfield, who came off the bench in all 30 of her appearances last year. “We’ve been working throughout spring, summer, and I’ve been taking the time to refine all my tools.
“I know everyone was excited to show all the work we’ve been putting in these past few, long months.”
The excitement began with a lead that grew as large as 22 points before the Dons whittled it to just four with 9:40 still remaining.
“It was a really good first game out of the gate for us,” coach Bonnie Henrickson said. “You don’t learn anything by beating people by 50.
“It’s a lot less stressful, but you don’t learn a lot.”
Whitfield, who transferred to UCSB last year from the University of Washington, also grabbed 12 rebounds. It marked her third double-double as a Gaucho.
Her four assists included two which set up crucial three-pointers by sophomore Jessica Grant. Grant went 3-for-5 from three in the final 6:45 and finished with 12 points.
“A little Swiss Army Knife-ish over here,” Henrickson said while gesturing toward Whitfield. “There are a lot of things she can do … A lot of positions she can play.
“I thought her energy and effort were really, really good.”
Marin is Money
Fellow senior Alyssa Marin added 14 points and seven assists. She hit two clutch baskets including a three-pointer in the final 4:06. She also passed to Whitfield for a three that sealed USF’s doom with 47.2 seconds left.
“You realize they’re coming back and getting a lot of energy,” Marin said. “But one of the biggest things we learn in practice is just to get three stops to stop their momentum.”
The Gauchos held the Dons scoreless in the final 3:16.
UCSB attacked at the outset, drawing two shooting fouls and scoring off Anya Choice’s drive in the first 95 seconds.
Five different Gauchos scored in the first three minutes. Choice assisted Skylar Burke on a backdoor cut and then drilled a three-pointer to give UCSB a 12-3 lead after just 3½ minutes.
Choice sat for the rest of the first half after getting her second foul, but the Gauchos didn’t miss a beat. They got their lead into double digits, 16-5, on Burke’s jumper.
Burke, a sophomore guard making her own first start, finished with 12 points and eight rebounds.
UCSB also got strong guard play from Mary McMorris, a sophomore transfer from Northern Arizona who contributed eight points and six assists. Flora Goed, a 6-4 transfer from Wyoming’s Casper College, added three assists from the high post.
“For as many new players as we have, and to have that kind of rhythm and flow, was really impressive,” Henrickson said. “There’s a humility about them which is why we’ve improved since August, and why we will continue to improve.
“There’s a chemistry with this group that goes hand in hand with that. That will be the recipe for us having a chance to continue to get better, and that’s what this time of year is all about.”
Whitfield scored three baskets in the final four minutes of the period, igniting a 13-3 run that extended UCSB’s lead to 31-14.
The margin grew as large as 22 points, 41-19, on Burke’s three with 5:10 still left in the first half. UCSB settled for a 53-34 margin at halftime, outshooting the Dons 58% to 32% and outscoring them 32-8 in the paint.
But USF resorted to a trapping press to flip the game in the second half. Ten of their steals led to 15 of UCSB’s turnovers.
“In the first half, we executed as well as we have in a long time,” Henrickson said. “We got primary looks. We got good looks. Clean looks.
“And then they did what they had to do, which was, ‘We’re not going to let you do any of that.’ I don’t think we ran a designed play in the second half because it was just them trapping.”
The Dons scored the first seven points of the third quarter. Jasmine Gayles, an attacking guard, got six of them en route to a game-high 30 points.
Marin countered with a three, but she headed to the bench a minute later with her third foul with 6:08 still left in the period. She didn’t return to the court until just 7:42 remained in the fourth quarter.
“I was very anxious,” Marin admitted. “Fouls like that are always very, very hard. It’s very easy for it to get into your head.
“But after a couple of years of making fouls like that, I kind of realize that I have to let it go, cheer for my teammates from the bench. Honestly, our bench energy was amazing.”
USF reduced its deficit to 66-60 by outscoring UCSB 26-13 in the third quarter. An outside jump shot by Freja Werth got it down to four points to start the fourth quarter.
The Dons were still within four at 68-64 when Gayles’ wild, running bank shot prompted Henrickson to call a timeout with 7:21 remaining. Her instructions to the Gauchos led to a trio of threes by Grant, a sophomore guard who had made just 1-of-6 to that point. She finished with 12 points.
“What did I say in the timeout?” Henrickson said. “ ‘If Jess is wide open, you give her the ball … You have to give her the ball. It’s not an option. It’s on your to-do list.
“Twice, we didn’t throw it to her, and I was like, ‘Really?’
“She was human in the first half. And then she became Jessica in the second half.”
Marin, who had just checked into the game, assisted Grant’s first three of the fourth quarter.
“One of those plays when Jessica hits that three, everyone’s pumped,” she said. “Once that started, I feel like we all started taking a breath again.”
Marin took the wind out of USF’s sails by ignoring her foul trouble to draw charging fouls from Cami Fulcher with 4:19 remaining and Gayles with 2:40 on the clock.
“Of course, you kind of get scared that it’s going to turn into a foul,” she said. “My main focus is just to try to set my feet and try to be as still as possible, because she was coming down the lane so fast.”
UCSB wound up outshooting the Dons 50% to 41.3% overall and outrebounding them 37-36.