All-tournament players (from left) Whitney Warren, Jessica Wilson, and Sha'Rae Gibbons celebrate after UCSB's victory over UC Davis for the Big West Conference championship.

Paul Sherman

All-tournament players (from left) Whitney Warren, Jessica Wilson, and Sha'Rae Gibbons celebrate after UCSB's victory over UC Davis for the Big West Conference championship.

UCSB Gaucho Women Head East for NCAA Tourney

Lucky 13

UCSB is hoping 13 is a lucky number in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. Since it is part of the phenomenon known as March Madness, that just might be the case.

The Gauchos are heading east to the Greensboro region, and they will play as the 13th seed against fourth-seeded Virginia in the opening round Sunday (approximately 6:30pm pdt) at Norfolk, Virginia. In their previous 11 NCAA appearances under head coach Mark French, the Gaucho women have won seven games-six of them against higher-seeded teams. They were a 12th seed in 2002 when they upset fifth-seeded Louisiana Tech, and they were an 11th seed in 2004 when they knocked off sixth-seeded Colorado and third-seeded Houston to reach the Sweet 16 against Connecticut.

Four years later, the Gauchos are again bracketed to face Connecticut in the regional semifinal. But it’s a tougher task to get there-UCSB hosted the first two rounds in 2004 but now will be playing three time zones away.

Regardless, the Gaucho women are extremely happy to return to the Big Dance after an absence of two years. They did play in the postseason Women’s NIT, but as junior guard Whitney Warren said, “To us, that meant Not In the Tournament.”

Credit must go to French and his coaching staff. They had the Gauchos exquisitely prepared for the Big West Conference tournament. They dominated Cal Poly and UC Davis, two teams that gave them trouble during the regular season. Basketball is a game of misses, miscues, and unlucky bounces, but the Gaucho women were as close to flawless as they’ve ever been. Jessica Wilson was dazzling as her college career nears its conclusion, Warren and Sha’Rae Gibbons also made the all-tournament team, and everybody else contributed to the effort.

French was relentless in prodding and admonishing the players this season. Even as they were winning 19 of their last 20 games, he described himself as “cranky and ornery.” Case in point: He called a timeout 13 seconds into the second half of the Cal Poly game and gave the Gauchos a piece of his mind because they gave up an easy basket. They led at the time, 49-32.

He’s absolutely taken the right approach,” assistant coach April Foster said of the man she calls “Big Daddy.” “Every team has different needs, and this team needed strong direction and discipline from the head coach.”

UCSB’s men, meanwhile, traveled to Mississippi for an NIT game Wednesday. They too were hoping to get to the NCAA tournament, but their quest was denied by an excruciating 55-50 loss to UC Irvine in the Big West semifinals. The Gauchos’ effort was anything but lackadaisical, but it smacked of desperation and despair. Loose balls slipped through their hands, and they splattered their free throws off the iron and glass.

Despite achieving a school record 23 victories, UCSB’s failure in Anaheim prompted much disparagement of head coach Bob Williams on the “Gaucho Locos” message board. Williams faced tougher opposition than French did with his women’s team. Fullerton, Northridge, Pacific, and Irvine all were in the top half of the men’s RPI ratings.

Gaucho fans like to talk about UCSB’s potential-but they fell short of their own potential this season, failing to fill even one third of the seats in the Thunderdome for most home games. Nor were they a very large contingent in Anaheim.

EASTER RELAYS:Z Whether they are an occasion for a stirring finish to a footrace, or just for gazing out at the ocean, the Santa Barbara Easter Relays are an enduring pastime. The track and field meet takes place for the 70th time this weekend at seaside La Playa Stadium. Community colleges will compete on Friday, March 21; high schools on Saturday; and youth and masters athletes on Sunday. Look for Jordan Hasay, a tiny 16-year-old junior at San Luis Obispo Mission Prep, to put on a show in the girls’ 3,000-meter run at 9 a.m. on Saturday. Hasay shattered the meet record in the 1,500 as a first-year student, and since then she has won two state championships in the 3,200 meters and two national junior cross-country titles. The Easter Relays record in the 3,000 is 10 minutes, 7.58 seconds, and Hasay said she is hoping to run in the vicinity of 9:15. At that pace, she’ll lap most of the field.

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