Gauchos Nail Top Big West Tournament Seeds

UCSB Men and Women

UCSB's Sha'Rae Gibbons (left) defends against Long Beach State's LaTorya Barbee.
Paul Wellman

UCSB has a monopoly on the “We’re Number One” cheer this week, but there are a bunch of other schools in the Big West Conference that will be ready to break out the “Over-Rated” chant at a moment’s letdown.

Both the Gaucho men and women’s teams earned the top seeds in the 2008 Big West Basketball Tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center. They are planted directly into the semifinals on Friday, March 14. The women will swing into action at noon and the men at 5:30 p.m. The lowest seeded survivors of the first two rounds will be their opponents.

It’s not as cozy as it sounds. UCSB’s men, 23-7 overall (a school record), were among three teams that went 11-4 in the conference. Cal State Northridge is seeded No. 2 and will play the other semifinal, while Cal State Fullerton is No. 3. A possible opponent of the Gauchos is fifth-seeded UC Irvine, which beat them twice during the regular season. But the Anteaters will have had to win games Wednesday and Thursday to reach the semis.

Although UCSB’s women (21-7, 15-1) finished three games ahead of second-place UC Davis, they split a pair of hair-raising overtime games against the Aggies, and they were also pushed into overtimes by fifth-seeded Cal Poly and sixth-seeded Cal State Fullerton. Then there’s third-seeded UC Riverside, which knocked off UCSB in the championship game the last two years.

At stake in Anaheim is the opportunity to go to the Big Dance. It is expected that only the champions will be invited to the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments. While that signifies the Big West’s lack of prestige on the national scene, it ratchets up the tension and drama at the conference tournament. “There’s never a time with more sense of urgency than when you go into the Big West Tournament,” UCSB men’s coach Bob Williams said.

Both championship games will be televised Saturday-the women’s at noon on Fox Sports Prime, the men’s at 8 p.m. on ESPN2.

The only time both Gaucho teams went to the NCAAs was 2002. The guys upset Utah State in the Big West final and pushed Pac-10 power Arizona to the limit in the NCAA first round at Albuquerque. UCSB’s women, playing a night later in Austin, Texas, shocked Louisiana Tech and then lost to the host Longhorns in the second round.

The Gaucho men put together a solid season, losing only to top-ranked North Carolina and seventh-ranked Stanford in pre-conference games. When they started out 3-3 in the Big West, doubts began to bubble up-but not among the Gauchos, who went 9-1 the rest of the way, including seven consecutive wins on the road. “They’ve responded in must-win, backs-against-the wall situations,” Williams said.

No game was bigger than last Thursday’s at Northridge, where Alex Harris scored 25 points in a 77-66 victory that vaulted the Gauchos into a three-way tie for first place. They survived an overtime scare at Long Beach State on Saturday and received the top seed in the tournament because of their 3-1 record against Northridge and Fullerton.

Harris was voted men’s Big West Co-Player of the Year along with Scott Cutley of Fullerton. A 6ʹ6Ê° senior guard, Harris’s year has been defined by consistency. He scored in double figures in all 29 games he played while averaging 20.3 points per game. He is 28 points shy of UCSB’s career scoring record (1,687 points by Carrick DeHart in 1986-90). No other Gauchos were among the 10 all-conference selections. Williams said his team could not have succeeded without increasing its toughness this year, and that quality is embodied by 6ʹ8Ê° junior Chris Devine. “He puts the hard hat on, jumps into the trenches, and does the dirty work for us,” the coach said.

UCSB’s Jessica Wilson is the women’s Big West Player of the Year. The 5ʹ10Ê° guard averaged 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds a game. Like Harris, she came to play every night. “In past years, Jessica was great some nights and faded into the woodwork at other times,” Coach Mark French said. “She’s been a true rock for us this year”-living up to her nickname, J-Rock. She was especially hard on opponents in UCSB’s four overtime victories, making a number of clutch plays.

Also making the all-conference team for the Gaucho women was 6’4″ junior Kat Suderman, who did an admirable job replacing the injured Jenna Green as the starting center. Suderman herself had tender knees, and Ashlee Brown was such a solid complement to her that Brown made the Big West All-Freshman team.

The Gaucho women expect to face extreme pressure in Anaheim, and Wilson said they will be ready for it after their previous experiences-Riverside beat them by one point in 2006 and two in 2007. “The last two years were heartbreaking,” she said. “Our team is ready to go out there and focus.”

No player exemplified the toughness of the Gaucho women this season more than junior guard Sha’Rae Gibbons. She came to Santa Barbara in 2003 from Sacramento, where her Valley High team was beaten many times over by Wilson’s Laguna Creek High. Gibbons was the last player to be offered a scholarship in that year’s recruiting class, and she had more of a reputation as an all-around athlete. In addition to basketball, she played volleyball, softball, and soccer, and she was a middle-distance runner in track. She also was a straight-A scholar.

There was a story behind Gibbons’s urge to achieve. When she was 14 years old, her father and her mother both died in a span of five months. She left Orem, Utah, where she had been living with her mother, to live with aunts and uncles in Sacramento.

“It can make you or break you,” said Gibbons, who not coincidentally had the tragic title role in the play Antigone (which means “unbending”) in high school. “It broke me for a minute.”

That “minute” occurred in 2005, after Gibbons had played 27 games as a Gaucho freshman. When the season was over, all the feelings she had stuffed away while being go-go-go for five years caught up with her. “I realized I needed time to process things,” she said. She withdrew from school and sat out the 2005-06 season. “I just chilled. I didn’t think about basketball,” she said. “I read a lot, was in church and with my family a lot.”

When she returned to UCSB, Gibbons was mentally ready to resume her role as a fiery backup point guard, but she was plagued by injuries. She had surgeries on her left shoulder and knee. She played in only 10 games in 2006-07. “I came in only at the end of the games,” she said, “and I was not doing well.” Assistant Coach April Foster, herself a former Gaucho point guard (McDivitt was her maiden name), put it bluntly: “She could barely bring the ball up against the press.”

“All those frustrations totally motivated me to work hard,” Gibbons said. “I lived in the Rec Center during the off-season. I tried to find people quicker and stronger to play against. I had Chisa (Ononiwu, a teammate) pressure me up and down the court. I played against guys a lot.” Foster said, “I’ve never seen a player improve so much over the summer.”

Gibbons still figured to be UCSB’s fourth option at point guard this season, behind two-year starter LaShay Fears; Lauren Pedersen, a transfer from UCLA; and the versatile Wilson. When Fears unexpectedly transferred to Fresno State, it improved her prospects a little. Then came the second game of the season, against USC. Gibbons caught fire down the stretch and helped the Gauchos erase a 13-point deficit. She finished with 19 points as they upset the Trojans in overtime, 69-63.

Since then, Gibbons has started 22 games, many of them alongside Pedersen. “She’s a little energizer bunny,” Pedersen said. “She makes us all competitive. She wins every drill in practice.” Gibbons came close to a rare triple-double against Cal Poly she had 11 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. “I’d have to get her a triple cheeseburger or a triple-shot espresso,” Pedersen said.

French said Gibbons provides “a fabulous example” to benchwarmers everywhere. “She overcame her injuries and worked unbelievably hard, even though there was no guarantee it would increase her playing time,” the UCSB coach said. “I don’t know how she stayed so tough after all she’s been through.”

The All-Big West selections for 2008 included some honorable mentions, and Sha’Rae Gibbons of UCSB is on that list.

AMBER ALERT: Westmont College sophomore Amber Stevens, a 5’7″ point guard out of Dos Pueblos High, was named to the All-Golden State Conference women’s basketball team. She averaged 10.9 points, 4.7 assists and 3.2 steals per game for the Warriors, who are heading to next week’s NAIA national tournament at Jackson, Tennessee, after finishing fourth in the power-packed GSAC.

“It’s a great achievement to be all-league in such a strong conference,” Westmont coach Kirsten McKnight said. She extolled Stevens’ ability to change a game with her ball-hawking skills. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said, ‘Amber, we need a steal,’ ” McKnight said.

Top Sporting Events: March 13-23

Wednesday, March 12

College baseball Biola at Westmont, 2:30 p.m.

College volleyball USC at UCSB, Robertson Gym, 7 p.m.

Thursday, March 13

College men’s tennis Yale at UCSB, 10 a.m.

College softball LACC at SBCC, Pershing Park, 2:30 p.m.

High school track & field San Marcos at Dos Pueblos, 2:45 p.m.

Friday, March 14

College basketball Big West Tournament at Anaheim Convention Center: Women’s semifinals, UCSB vs. TBA, 12 p.m. (Radio: 1340 AM); Men’s semifinals, UCSB vs. TBA, 5:30 p.m. (Radio: 990 AM).

College baseball Southern Utah at UCSB, 2 p.m.

High school baseball Lompoc at San Marcos, 3:15 p.m.

Saturday, March 15

Running Santa Barbara Running Shamrock 5-Miler, Girsh Park, 10 a.m.

College basketball Big West Tournament at Anaheim Convention Center: Women’s final, 12 p.m. (TV: Fox Sports Prime Ticket). Men’s final, 8 p.m. (TV: ESPN2).

High school baseball Cabrillo at San Marcos, 11 a.m.

College baseball Southern Utah at UCSB (2), 11 a.m.; Ventura at SBCC, Pershing Park, 1 p.m.

College women’s tennis Cal State Northridge at UCSB, 11 a.m.

High school volleyball Dos Pueblos Invitational at UCSB, all day.

College volleyball Pepperdine at UCSB, Robertson Gym, 7 p.m.

Sunday, March 16

College baseball Southern Utah at UCSB, 1 p.m.

Every Monday

Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table press luncheon, Harry’s Plaza Cafe, noon.

Monday, March 17

High school baseball Carpinteria at Bishop Diego, 3:30 p.m.

Tuesday, March 18

College softball Ventura at SBCC (2), Pershing Park, 1 p.m.

High school baseball San Marcos at Dos Pueblos, 3:15 p.m.; Buena at Santa Barbara, 3:15 p.m.

Wednesday, March 19

High school baseball Santa Clara at Carpinteria, 3:30 p.m.

High school volleyball Santa Ynez at Santa Barbara, 6:30 p.m.

Thursday, March 20

High school swimming San Marcos at Dos Pueblos, 2:30 p.m.

High school track & field Santa Barbara at Dos Pueblos, 2:45 p.m.

High school baseball San Marcos at Santa Barbara, 3:15 p.m.; Nordhoff at Dos Pueblos, 3:30 p.m.

High school volleyball San Marcos at Dos Pueblos, 6:30 p.m.; Buena at Santa Barbara, 6:30 p.m.

Friday, March 21

College track & field Community College Easter Relays, La Playa Stadium, all day.

College baseball Compton at SBCC, Pershing Park, 1 p.m.; St. Mary’s at UCSB, 2 p.m.

High school baseball Santa Barbara at San Marcos, 3:15 p.m.

College volleyball Santa Monica at SBCC, 6 p.m.

Saturday, March 22

High school track & field Easter Relays, La Playa Stadium, all day.

Running Carpinteria Education Foundation Orchard to Ocean 10K, 5K, Fun Mile, Main School, 8 a.m.

College baseball St. Mary’s at UCSB (2), 11 a.m.; Occidental at Westmont (2), 11 a.m.

Sunday, March 23

College men’s tennis Dartmouth at UCSB, 1 p.m.

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