Ryan Chartrand

In a battle between Big West Conference heavyweights, the UC Santa Barbara women’s basketball team delivered a first-round blow that Cal Poly never fully recovered from.

Falling behind 9-2 early, Cal Poly trailed throughout, struggling to find a rhythm offensively in a 75-58 defeat Saturday afternoon at Mott Gym.

In a match-up of two teams with undefeated conference records, UCSB (10-6, 5-0 Big West) made an early bid for Big West supremacy in a physical contest that dropped Cal Poly (7-11, 4-1 Big West) into a tie for third.

“This was a contest of wills, and we didn’t match their physical play,” said Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh. “It was a fight, and (UC) Santa Barbara knocked us out today.”

Cal Poly struggled to match the size advantage UCSB had inside. Six-foot-4 center Kat Suderman scored 14 points and grabbed a game-high six rebounds for the Gauchos, and forward Ashlee Brown came off the bench to make all six of her shots from the floor to finish with a team-high 15 points in just 15 minutes.

Cal Poly was out-rebounded 36-31 and committed 20 turnovers while shooting 35.7 percent from the floor.

Senior guard Sparkle Anderson led the Mustangs with 12 points and six assists. She also finished with four rebounds and a steal.

Playing in front of a crowd of 1,172, the Mustangs’ largest since 2003, Cal Poly was stifled early by a swarming Gauchos defense.

The Mustangs missed 14 of their first 17 shots, including several contested looks from point-blank range before Ashlee Stewart hit Cal Poly’s first 3-pointer of the night to trim the deficit to seven, at 21-14 with 9:11 left in the first half.

“(UC) Santa Barbara is always a physical team,” Cal Poly forward Megan Harrison said. “They applied a lot of pressure, but we were still able to get the shots we wanted. We just couldn’t get them to fall tonight.”

Harrison finished with 10 points, making it the sixth time she has reached double figures in the past seven games.

Cal Poly’s woes continued the entire first half, shooting 25 percent (7 of 28) overall and committing 10 turnovers on the way to trailing 35-25.

Things may have been out of hand for the Mustangs if not for Kristina Santiago’s seven points off the bench. She finished with nine.

Coming out of the break, Cal Poly tried to claw back into the game by using a full-court press to keep the UCSB offense off balance.

For a while it worked, and a string of turnovers and missed shots by UCSB early in the second half allowed Cal Poly to hang around, getting as close as 41-34 with 11:43 left.

But the physical, high-energy pace took its toll on Cal Poly, as UCSB began to beat the press.

Cal Poly’s starting trio of guards – Anderson, Stewart and Tamara Wells – all logged more than 26 minutes.

“We couldn’t handle their speed near the end,” Mimnaugh said. “Their ball handler was getting around us, so we tried to cheat up and pick off a few passes, but they threw over our heads for easy opportunities.”

When they weren’t getting lay-ups, the Gauchos were converting at the free-throw line, making 15 of their 17 attempts from the charity stripe in the second half as they pulled away in the final minutes.

Cal Poly doesn’t have time to dwell on the loss for long.

The Mustangs are entering a critical stretch of the season in which five of their next six contests are on the road, starting with Pacific at 7 p.m. Thursday.

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