Kenzi Snyder, shown in a game from last season, made several clutch saves in the fourth period in UCSB’s win over UCLA. (Noozhawk file photo)

It took a quarter to get going, but once UCSB’s defense got it together, visiting UC Irvine had a tough time getting a shot past goalie Kenzi Snyder.

Snyder made a season-high 13 saves and the Gaucho defense held the Anteaters to one goal in the second half in posting a 6-5 victory in a Big West women’s water polo opener on Saturday at Campus Pool.

It was the No. 10-ranked Gauchos’ first win against No. 8 UC Irvine, the defending conference champion, since they won the Big West title in 2016. They had been beaten in two earlier meetings this year in tournaments and gave up 11 goals in both losses.

The UCSB defense and Snyder made sure that didn’t happen again.

“Our defense today helped me tremendously to get those blocks,” said Snyder, who, in the fourth period, stopped a penalty shot  and made a point-blank save against UC Irvine’s two best shooters. “I owe it to my team to help me out there.”

UCSB coach Serela Kay admitted the team got off to a slow start against the pressing defense of the Anteaters.

“We started a little sluggish and then the mindset went back to: ‘You guys, we got to nail down our defense. The offense is going to come, the flow will come in the offensive court.’ Everything fueled from that defensive end. We started playing together a little more and got into a rhythm.”

Fittingly, it was a defensive play by Kate Coski that led to the go-ahead goal. Her steal led to a score by Kate Pipkin that gave UCSB a 5-4 lead at the 2:43 mark of the third period.

Sarah Snyder

Sarah Snyder lobs the ball over UC Irvine goalie Morgan Jones to give the Gauchos a 6-4 lead in the fourth period. (JC Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

The Gauchos, which trailed 3-0 after the first period and 4-1 in the second, scored five unanswered goals to take a 6-4 lead in the fourth period. Sarah Snyder scored the sixth goal off a sweet lob pass from Pipkin. Left one on one with Anteaters’ goalie Morgan Jones, Snyder waited for Jones to make a move before calmly lobbing the ball over her.

The final four minutes were frantic. Irvine standout Tara Prentice drew an ejection and scored on the power play to make it a 6-5 game. It was the only power-play goal allowed by the Gauchos, who were whistled for 11 exclusions.

Prentice hit the cross bar on another power play, Snyder blocked a point-blank shot by Mary Brooks and then forced Prentice to shoot over the bar with 1:13 left in regulation.

Irvine generated two more tries at a tying goal, but Isabel Rack hit the far post with 18 seconds left and had another shot saved by Snyder.

“Kenzi Snyder is a gamer. She showed up, she saw the ball and blocked it,” said Kay.

Snyder said there’s no secret to stopping point-blank shots.

“You just look at the ball and hope it hits your hand in time,” she said, laughing. 

The Gauchos got off to a slow start, falling behind 3-0 in the first period. Rack scored from outside, Sarah Nichols beat Snyder on a lob and Piper Smith finished from two meters for the Anteaters. Smith is a freshman who played on San Marcos’ CIF-SS Division 1 championship team last season.

There were several local players on both teams. Irvine’s roster included Toni Shackelford of Dos Pueblos and Jenna Phreaner of San Marcos. 

The locals from UCSB are Coski (San Marcos), Amelia Meckelborg (Dos Pueblos) and Sarah Owens (San Marcos), who also played on the CIF championship team.

After failing to convert on their first four power plays, the Gauchos finally broke through, with Pipkin finishing her chance at 3:25 of the second period.

But Brooks answered for the Anteaters on their next possession to go up 4-1.

“They had really hard pressure at the beginning of the game,” Kenzi Snyder said of the Anteaters. ” I don’t think we came out 100 percent ready for that. As the game went on, we were more ready for their pressure.”

The UCSB defense tightened up and UC Irvine didn’t score again until the fourth period.

In the meantime, Kelly Murphy scored on a power play and Shannon Moran fed Snyder for a goal to make it 4-3 with 1:38 to go in the second quarter.

UCSB tied the score at 4:22 of the third period on a power-play goal by Dara Bleiberg, assisted by Mollie Simmons.

“We had a few players step up that we normally don’t see,” Kay said. “It was nice to see goals coming from all over the place, from different looks and different players like Kelly Murphy and Dara Bleiberg. They put those two 6-on-5 goals away and that made the difference.”

UCSB improved to 16-5 on the season and UC Irvine fell to 12-7.

— Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.