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Ononiwu Rescues Gauchos in 65-63 Victory

UCSB's furious second-half comeback sinks Pepperdine at Thunderdome.

It took another second half comeback and another big shot to win it, but UCSB’s women’s basketball team prevailed again Monday night at the Thunderdome.

A month ago the Gauchos (4-5) thrilled the home-court fans when Jessica Wilson‘s buzzer-beater propelled the Gauchos (4-5) to an overtime win over USC.

This time, it was the Pepperdine Waves (5-4) who were wiped out by Chisa Ononiwu‘s last-second shot, which gave UCSB a 65-63 victory.

Head coach Mark French and the Gauchos had not forgotten about their last win at the Thunderdome, and as the clock ticked down in this one, they were not about to concede.

“Wins early always linger. The game is not over until it’s over," French said.

With the game tied at 63 and 20 seconds left, French used the Gauchos’ last timeout to call Ononiwu’s number.

She took the inbounds pass at half-court, held the ball for a moment and looked at the clock.  With Pepperdine’s Jessica Ross in front of her, Ononiwu bobbed up and down, drove to just inside the three-point line and let fly a jump shot from 15 feet.

“I knew what I was going to do before I got the ball,” Ononiwu said. “She (Ross) was playing back off me … I knew it was going to be perfect.”

Indeed it was, giving UCSB a two-point lead with 4.4 seconds left.  Daphanie Kennedy’s desperation shot, leaning into Ononiwu, fell short at the buzzer, and the Gauchos had their fourth win of the season.

It was not so perfect for UCSB earlier.  Already without injured center Jenna Green and her 11 points per game, and in what some might call an unexpected move, French began the game with Ononiwu and Wilson on the bench.

“It wouldn’t be curious after practice the last few days,” said French, explaining the starting lineup was a message to his players.  “We want to make sure no one feels secure.”

With UCSB trailing by seven points late in the game, Ononiwu and Wilson may have had a message to send back to their coach.

Two Ononiwu baskets, plus a pair of free throws, started a Gauchos run that cut the deficit to 63-60 with a minute left to go. Then the UCSB defense shut down the Waves.

Whitney Warren’s steal and long toss down the floor found Wilson for an uncontested layup to cut the lead to one. On the ensuing possession, the Gauchos forced Pepperdine into another turnover and it was again Warren coming up with the loose ball, this time finding Ashlee Brown down court. Brown was fouled hard on the shot, sending her tumbling to the ground.  She left the floor with the trainer and French called on Kat Suderman to shoot the free throws.

Suderman, whose offense kept the Gauchos close in the second half, made the first shot to tie the game at 63. Her second shot hit off the side of the rim, taking a lucky bounce off a Pepperdine player before going out of bounds.

“We deserved to get lucky,” said French, noting a string of bad bounces that fell into the hands of Pepperdine players all game.

But it was not luck on the following shot by Ononiwu to win it. As she confidently explained after the game, “That’s my signature move.”

Before the late-game heroics, the Gauchos had a slew of turnovers and poor possessions to begin the first half. Pepperdine opened up a 16-8 lead, largely due to the play of 6-foot-3-inch sophomore Miranda Ayim.  Time after time, the Waves found her inside for layups and short jump shots as she finished with 21 points (15 in the half).  Her long arms and athleticism frustrated the Gauchos’ offense into eight turnovers before halftime.

Pepperdine had 14 turnovers of its own, however, and the play of Lauren Pederson and Meagan Williams off the bench gave UCSB a 35-32 halftime lead.  Pederson scored six points, dished out four assists and was perfect from the free-throw line in the half. Twice she found Williams in transition for easy baskets following Pepperdine turnovers.  Williams was one of the only Gauchos to consistently find the basket before halftime, scoring seven points.

The second half began just like the first, with UCSB’s advantage quickly disappearing after more turnovers. Pepperdine slowly built its lead behind 12 second-half points from Kennedy. But that only set the stage for a big finish by Ononiwu and the Gauchos.

With UCSB traveling to Montana for a two-game holiday tournament after Christmas, Ononiwu did not seem too concerned about whether she would be a starter or coming in off the bench.

“It’s an opportunity for the rest of my teammates to show up,” she said. “The little time I had, I had to make the best of it. We needed a win.”

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