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.

— Strike up the band, and make the tempo fast – UCSB is going to the Big Dance.

Jessica Wilson led the full-speed-ahead Gauchos to the women’s championship of the Big West basketball tournament Saturday afternoon. They overcame an early 10-point deficit and ran away from UC Davis by a 74-59 score. UCSB (23-7) will go into the NCAA women’s tournament for the 12th time – and for the first time since 2005. The seedings of the 64 teams will be announced at 4 p.m. Monday, March 17, on ESPN.

“The NCAA tournament is the best place to be,” said Wilson, who was a freshman the last time the Gauchos went dancing. The 5’10” senior wanted to end her college career with the same excitement, and she made sure of that Saturday. Wilson had team highs in points (16), rebounds (7), and assists (5). She also had a steal and a block. Wilson added tournament Most Valuable Player honor to her earlier selection as Big West Player of the Year. Also making the all-tournament team from UCSB were Sha’Rae Gibbons (13 points and 4 assists) and Whitney Warren (12 points).

UC Davis (19-11) got an all-tournament performance from senior forward Jessica Campbell, who scored a game-high 25 points. The Aggies got off to a hot start, hitting four 3-point baskets in a four-minute span to take a 24-14 lead.

The Gauchos responded with their own flurry of threes – by Jordan Franey, Wilson, Lauren Pedersen and Gibbons – but the Aggies still had a 31-24 advantage after Campbell hit her second triple with four minutes remaining in the first half.

UCSB then turned the game around by going into a full-court pressure defense, forcing the Aggies into ball-handling errors and off-balance shots. “Picking it up on defense allowed us to get out and run,” said Gaucho coach Mark French.

The Gauchos ran to the tune of 14 consecutive points and took a 38-31 lead. Wilson scored the tying points on a fast-break layup and free throw. She was knocked down as the ball dropped through the basket. The sight prompted UCSB’s senior to do a jig, break-dancing style, while flat on her back. Aside from that exuberant performance, Wilson said she was trying to stay calm throughout the game. “Knowing the last two years how it ended (heart-breaking defeats to UC Riverside in the championship game),” she said, “I was too high then . . . I just relaxed today.”

The Gauchos’ flow was so comfortable that they committed just six turnovers in the game. UC Davis coughed up the ball 18 times. The Aggies made a mini-run early in the second half to tie the score, 42-42, but UCSB unleashed a 17-2 rampage and was ahead by at least nine points the rest of the way. At one point, Wilson sped through and beyond four Davis players while going from one end to another for a layup.

“Jessica went ‘whoosh,'” French said. “There were a lot of Davis players, and then there weren’t any Davis players.”

The Aggies expect an invitation to the Women’s NIT as a reward for finishing second. The Gauchos went to that tournament the past two years.

“We didn’t want to do that again,” Warren said. “For us, NIT meant ‘Not In the Tournament.'”

That’s the NCAA’s Big Dance, the best place to be.


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