The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s rendition of March Madness is less frenzied than the basketball championships conducted by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Instead of spreading out a tournament for three weeks, the NAIA brings 32 teams together at one site and compresses the competition into six days.
After another winning season on the slopes of Montecito, Westmont College is sending both its teams to the NAIA Division I Championships — the women’s tournament in Billings, Montana, and the men’s in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Warrior women will be seeking their second national crown. All they have to do is win five games in six days, beginning Thursday, March 16, when they square off against Louisiana State University Shreveport in their first-round game.
Westmont is one of four teams representing the power-packed Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) in the women’s nationals. Last week, the Warriors won the GSAC title by defeating The Master’s University, 61-52. Their three senior players led the way — forward Aysia Shellmire producing a double-double of 18 points and 16 rebounds; point guard Cora Chan scoring 15 points, all in the second half, when she made four clutch three-point baskets; and sharpshooting guard Aimee Brakken pitching in 11 points.
The three were high school seniors in 2013 when Westmont’s women captured the hearts of attentive fans by winning the school’s first national basketball title. It was the emotional climax of a year in which the Warriors’ head coach, Kirsten Moore, dealt with the death of her husband, Alex, from post-surgery complications, and the subsequent birth of their daughter, Alexis.
When she first heard about the college, Shellmire confessed, “I didn’t have a clue where Westmont was and what the coaches were like.” Four years later, the six-footer from Burbank cherishes her time there.
“I would tell somebody it’s a place where you’re going to be loved, no matter where you come from,” she said. “They’ll try to stretch you and grow you spiritually. I didn’t understand how suffering has a part in the whole scheme of things. Not everything is going to come easily.”
Westmont’s coaches recruited both Chan and Shellmire out of the San Fernando Valley. Brakken, a scholar-athlete from Issaquah, Washington, became part of the class through her own initiative after hearing about the school from a family friend.
The three seniors have helped the Warriors chalk up 103 wins in the past four seasons, including a 27-4 record this year. Shellmire, a fiery player under the boards, and Brakken, a deadly perimeter shooter (44 percent from three-point range), both praise the influence of Chan.
“Since our freshman year, she has been an unsung player, the glue player,” Brakken said. “I love how calm she keeps me on the court. Without her, I would go insane.” Shellmire said, “Cora is one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.”
In the GSAC championship game, the 5′6″ Chan was quietly going about her business until the end of the third quarter, when she hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to stem a rally by The Master’s. She was called “Dagger Lady” by the TV announcers.
“My personality is to be calm and composed,” Chan said. “That’s something this team needs from me. To me, basketball is a fun sport.”
Westmont’s cagers hope to prolong the fun for several more days in Billings and in Kansas City, where the men’s team is making its third consecutive appearance in the nationals. If they get past their Thursday game against William Carey of Mississippi, the Warriors (24-7) face a potential second-round matchup against top-seeded Louisiana State University of Alexandria (31-0).
WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR
Two years after it went 2-27, UCSB fell a basket short of becoming a Cinderella team in the NCAA women’s tournament. The Gauchos lost the Big West championship game to Long Beach State, 56-55. Leading up to the final, UCSB sophomore guard Sarah Porter poured in a school-record nine three-pointers (in 11 attempts) against UC Riverside, and then the Gauchos did not miss a shot (10-for-10) in the third quarter when they came from behind to knock off top-seeded UC Davis. UCSB, finishing with a 16-16 record, would probably have been a No. 16 seed had it gone to the NCAAs and sent to be buried by Baylor in Waco. With most of the players returning for Bonnie Henrickson’s third season as coach, the team can shoot much higher in 2017-18. … Meanwhile, in the wake of UCSB’s decision not to bring back Bob Williams for a 20th season as men’s head coach, director of athletics John McCutcheon can only hope the next coach he hires works out as well as Henrickson has. It’s a shame that the news of Williams’s removal was leaked out before the longtime coach was officially informed.
Former NBA superstar Jerry West has a state-of-the-art basketball mind that helped bring success to the L.A. Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, and currently the Golden State Warriors. Fielding questions at a Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table fundraiser Monday night, West had good things to say about players from Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, and Michael Jordan to LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and James Harden (although he’s “never seen anybody walk so much” as the Houston Rockets star). If he had to pick a coach, it would be San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. The 78-year-old West waxed philosophical on other matters. “I’m a vociferous reader,” he said, recommending books by Don Miguel Ruiz and Andy Andrews. He’s read volumes about Winston Churchill and FDR. “If you want to know about real leaders,” he said, “don’t look at the people we have today; look back decades.”
JOHN ZANT’S GAME OF THE WEEK
March 18th, College Baseball: Oxnard at Santa Barbara City College SBCC will take a precarious 8-0 home record into Saturday’s game; it won six of those games by just one run. Before an 8-1 victory at Hancock College last week, the Vaqueros had a streak of six consecutive come-from-behind victories. They hope the magic prevails against Oxnard to keep them atop the Western State Conference North standings. 1pm. Pershing Park, 100 Castillo St. $3-$5. Call 730-4076.
S.B. ATHLETIC ROUND TABLE ATHLETES OF THE WEEK
Drea Toler, UCSB basketball
The junior from Inglewood averaged 17.3 points and 6.3 assists in three Big West Tournament games, including a career-high 23 points in a semifinal win over UC Davis.
Vince Vogel, San Marcos baseball
After hitting a triple, double, and single in an 11-1 win over Hueneme, the junior went to the mound and struck out four of six Santa Barbara batters to save a 1-0 victory.