The basketball beat will go on for the UCSB Gauchos this week.
The Big Dance awaits the Gaucho women. First-year coach Carlene Mitchell’s crew took the Big West Tournament by storm, capping it with a 63-54 victory over Long Beach State on Saturday to earn the program’s 14th invitation to the NCAA women’s tournament. The bracket will be revealed Monday, March 12, at 4 p.m. on ESPN.
Long Beach State got some revenge in the men’s Big West final, notching a 77-64 triumph over a UCSB team that had upset the 49ers the previous two years. But the Gauchos will continue to play in a little dance — the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. UCSB (20-10) will travel to face Idaho (18-13) on Wednesday, March 14, at 7 p.m. in the first round of the CIT, a 32-team consolation tournament.
Coach Bob Williams said the Gauchos deserved the opportunity. “This team still has juice in its tank,” Williams said. He is understandably reluctant to see seniors Orlando Johnson, James Nunnally, Jaime Serna, Greg Somogyi, and Christian Peterson conclude their collegiate careers. It took a phenomenal performance by Long Beach senior Casper Ware — 33 points, including eight three-point baskets, and six assists — to deny them a third trip to the Big Dance.
The Gaucho women (17-15) were not going anywhere further unless they won the conference tournament after finishing sixth during the regular season. They knocked off two teams that had swept them — UC Irvine and Pacific — to reach the final against equally surprising Long Beach State, the seventh seed. Junior center Kirsten Tilleman, the tournament MVP, had 16 points and 11 rebounds in the championship game.
The NCAA Women’s Selection Show on Monday will be viewed by the Gauchos and fans at UCSB’s Intercollegiate Athletics Building. Because of their sketchy record leading up to the Big West Tournament, the Gauchos’ invitation comes with a noose attached. It is expected that the NCAA will relegate them to a No. 16 seed. If so, UCSB will have to face a No. 1 in the first round Saturday, March 17, or Sunday. The Gauchos might be sent to Spokane, the only first-round site west of the Rockies, where Pac-12 champion Stanford is likely to be planted as the No. 1 seed. Another daunting possibility is going to play undefeated Baylor, and 6’8” intimidator Brittney Griner, at College Station, Texas.
Stanford was the opening opponent of the last three Big West champions — UCSB (2009), UC Riverside (2010), and UC Davis (2011). The Cardinal won those three games by an average margin of 31 points. The Big West has not won an NCAA women’s tournament game since 2004, when Mark French’s Gauchos defeated Colorado and Houston en route to the Sweet Sixteen.
But a tough draw will not dim the Gauchos’ elation at getting back into March Madness, symbolized by their cutting down the net at the Honda Center after their triumph Saturday. It seemed a far-fetched notion a month ago, when UCSB lost seven of 10 games and fell near the bottom of the Big West standings. The players said that Mitchell’s patient, positive approach led them out of the wilderness.
“Coach Mitch taught us to never give up, and this moment right here proves it,” said sophomore guard Melissa Zornig, who made the Big West all-tournament team. “She never gave up on our team, and that gives us a lot of respect for Coach Mitch.”
Mitchell opened her post-game comments by saying, “The Gauchos are back.” The usually composed coach added, “I let a smile out before the final buzzer, and a few tears in the locker room, because only these young ladies in this small group understand what we’ve gone through this year. At the end of the day, this is why you play the game: March Madness, and the chance to cut down nets.”