More often than not, Santa Barbara has a stake in March Madness that goes beyond the office pools. For the past five years, UCSB has been represented in the NCAA’s “Big Dance” by either the men’s or women’s teams. Whether the Gauchos extend that streak will be determined at the Big West Conference tournaments this week.
Both Gaucho teams are in underdog roles. The men (11-19 in the regular season) are seeded seventh in the eight-team playoff at Anaheim’s Honda Center. They play the opening game Thursday, March 14, against the second-seeded Pacific Tigers.
UCSB is seeded fourth in the women’s tournament, which began Wednesday, March 13, at UC Irvine and will continue Friday, March 15, at the Honda Center. The Gauchos (15-15) will try to repeat last year’s remarkable run, when they went from sixth place to the tournament title and an NCAA matchup against No. 1 Baylor.
Long Beach State’s men (18-12) and Pacific’s women (24-6) were the Big West’s most consistent teams in the regular season, but neither was invincible. The key for up-and-down teams like the Gauchos is to bring their “A” game to every match.
Two UCSB players who strive for an “A” grade in everything they do are Kyle Boswell and Kirsten Tilleman, students who happen to play basketball.
A Major Major
Boswell was an honors student at Edison High in Huntington Beach, and when it came to accepting a scholarship to play college basketball, he said, “I wasn’t willing to sacrifice all the work I put into academics.” He chose UCSB, where he could work toward a degree in mechanical engineering. “It takes science in all aspects — chemistry, physics, analyzing and designing systems,” he said. It is exciting for him to look at a building or an automobile and think of all its components.
He is used to dealing with difficult exams, assignments, and deadlines in his school work, and that translates to the basketball court. The 6′2″ junior guard excels in the clutch. “You can’t shy away from pressure in big moments,” he said. He made a three-point basket at the buzzer to send the Gauchos toward an overtime victory at Santa Clara. In the final minutes of their home finale last Saturday against UC Riverside, Boswell broke a 41-41 tie with a three-pointer and followed that with a driving layup and free throw. “I’m a [perimeter] shooter first,” he said. “If they get up on me as tight as they can, I have to keep in mind taking it to the basket.”
Coach Bob Williams brings Boswell off the bench to put some spark into the Gauchos. Boswell was named this week as the Best Sixth Player in the conference. Sophomore forward Alan Williams, the nation’s fifth leading rebounder, made the All-Big West first team. With almost the entire roster returning next year, Boswell said, “We’re going to have a great team.” This week, he’ll try to help UCSB engineer some upsets.
Tilleman, like Boswell, had parents who instilled in her a sense of responsibility. “They never paid for good grades like some parents,” she said. “They taught us right and wrong.” Tilleman grew up in Bozeman, Montana. She loves the great outdoors, and there was plenty of it around her home, as well as sports — she was an all-state athlete in basketball, soccer, and track.
She went to Oregon State, where she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in natural resources after just three years. She came to UCSB to pursue a master’s of environmental sciences and management at the university’s Bren School. She is a member of a team that is preparing a public-access program for Tejon Ranch. “It’s challenging,” Tilleman said. “It’s a lot of land [270,000 acres], and it has incredible diversity — the Tehachapi Mountains, woodlands, grasslands, and the Mojave Desert.”
Tilleman faces a challenge every time she plays for the UCSB women’s basketball team. She is the tallest starter at 6′1″ and competes against bigger opponents with guile and guts. She won’t hesitate to dive onto the floor after a loose ball. Her finest hour came in last year’s Big West championship game, when she led the Gauchos with 16 points and 11 rebounds and was named MVP of the tournament.
The next few months are a time of transition for Tilleman, as she put it: “From a student-athlete to a student to being a person out there in the nonacademic world.” She is interested in land use and water resource management.
If UCSB lands a team in this year’s NCAA tournament, don’t expect it to go very far. But in the bracket of life, circle Kirsten Tilleman and Kyle Boswell to go a long way.
CHAMPIONS: Providence Hall won the CIF Southern Section Division 6 girls championship, the first section basketball title won by a Santa Barbara team in two decades. … Westmont College is seeded fourth and 11th, respectively, in the NAIA women’s and men’s national tournaments.