It was just one more weekend, two more wins and one conference championship for the UCSB women’s basketball team, as Lindsay Gottlieb’s Gauchos defeated UC Riverside and Long Beach State on the road to finish the regular season. With the wins, Santa Barbara ends the season at 15-1 in conference and clinches the top seed in the Big West Tournament next week.
“At the beginning of the season, one of our goals was to win a regular season title,” Gottlieb said. In her first season at the helm, the Santa Barbara head coach managed to pick up where her predecessor left off, continuing Mark French’s impressive record of conference championships. Prior to Gottlieb’s arrival, UCSB had won 12 of the last 13 regular season titles.
“These players are used to winning championships,” she said. Having come from UC Berkeley in the stronger Pacific 10, though, Gottlieb had a different perspective, “I know how difficult it is.”
But while the regular season is important, it is the conference tournament that matters the most. The winner receives an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, while the others will have to wait until next year to try again.
“We’re not satisfied with just this,” Gottlieb said. “The tournament title has a lot on the line.
“It’s a good place to be, but we want more.”
The action started off Thursday with an all-important rematch with UC Riverside. With a win, the Gauchos could clinch the title, while a loss would put it within Riverside’s grasp.
The game started off close, with each team exchanging leads. The Highlanders led by as many as seven points (a 24-17 score with 6:43 remaining) but UCSB kept the deficit manageable through the first half. At halftime, Santa Barbara only trailed 32-31.
The second half started off well for UCSB, as the Gauchos jumped out to a seven point lead on a three-pointer by freshman point guard Emilie Johnson. The Highlanders responded with a run of their own, going 12-2 over the next few minutes to reclaim the lead. As the action went back and forth, the stars for each team really stepped up the level of play. Riverside’s Kemie Nkele notched 29 points and eight rebounds, while the Gauchos’ senior guard Lauren Pedersen tallied a career-high 28 points to go with four rebounds and five assists. Seventeen of Pedersen’s points came in the second half.
The game went down to the wire, and it was just a couple of big plays at the end that gave UCSB the victory. Sixth-year senior center Jenna Green made buckets on two consecutive possessions to create a four-point lead, and Pedersen iced her free throws with 14 seconds remaining to put the game out of reach. The Gauchos ended up winning 65-59 — a well-earned victory.
“It was everything you could hope for in a March game with something on the line,” Gottlieb said. “Both teams played extremely well. … We were just able to make critical plays at the end.”
The next match against Long Beach State lost a little of its luster with the conference already decided, but UCSB came out to play nonetheless.
“We have a team that has such high standards for itself, Gottlieb said. “I didn’t fear a letdown at all, it was just about coming out and executing.”
And while the coach used the opportunity to rest her starters and give some minutes to bench players, UCSB was able to come away with a less-than-frightening 74-62 victory against the overmatched 49ers. Pedersen and senior point guard Sha’Rae Gibbons led the way with 14 and 15 points respectively, and junior forward Jordan Franey had 10 of her own.
Now that the conference crown is theirs, the Gauchos must wait until Friday before playing in the Big West Tournament semifinals at the Anaheim Convention Center against an, as of now, undetermined school. Gottlieb thinks they will be ready.
“I think we’re going to have a great week of practice. [The players are] really focused. We respond really well to these situations where we have a lot on the line.”
Whatever the outcome in Anaheim, UCSB can take pride in yet another fantastic regular season.