For 63 of the 64 participants in the Big Dance every year, their season must end with a loss. Such was the case for the UCSB women’s basketball team, overmatched by a fantastic Stanford squad in the NCAA first round and losing 74-39 — finalizing a very successful first season for Head Coach Lindsay Gottlieb.
“It was a great year that we can all be proud of,” Gottlieb said.
However, that great year (which included a 15-1 conference record and both the Big West regular season and tournament titles) resulted in a disappointing 15th seed in the NCAA tournament and a matchup with one of the best squads in the country.
“Going in, I was really aware of how good they are,” Gottlieb said. “They’re one of the top two or three teams in the country this year.”
And while the Gauchos were unable to pull off the upset, the game was far from all bad.
“I loved the mentality of our kids,” Gottlieb said. “I felt like they weren’t afraid at all. … that said, we didn’t play our best.”
UCSB hung tight with the Cardinal for the first eight minutes of play, and sixth-year senior center Jenna Green was off to a hot start with the Gauchos’ first six points. With 12 minutes remaining in the first half, Santa Barbara trailed 17-11. The remainder of the half would be less kind, as Stanford went on a 25-3 run to go into the locker rooms with a comfortable 42-14 lead.
The second half played out uneventfully, as the Gauchos could never chip into the deficit and lost 74-39. Senior forward Whitney Warren led UCSB with 10 points, while Green contributed seven. Senior guard Lauren Pedersen, who earned the Big West Tournament MVP and a first-team all conference nod in the week prior, was held scoreless on 0-8 shooting.
The road to the NCAA Tournament was much happier for the Gauchos, but it was by no means easy. After holding off a feisty Cal State Fullerton squad in the Big West semifinals, UCSB had to take on Central Coast rival Cal Poly in the final.
The Gauchos and Mustangs had battled in two exciting contests during the regular season — both resulting in Santa Barbara wins. This time, Cal Poly was determined to turn the tables. For the first 13 minutes, it looked like the Mustangs would do just that.
Poly jumped on the Gauchos from the get-go, scoring at will on the usually stingy Santa Barbara defense to take a 27-12 lead. But with 6:22 remaining in the first half, senior point guard Sha’Rae Gibbons launched an NBA-range three, giving the Gauchos much-needed momentum and sparking a stellar run.
UCSB cut the 15-point deficit to three in the remainder of the half and entered the second with all the momentum.
“We were down 27-12, and every time I looked at our players in the huddle they never wavered,” Gottlieb said. “Once we stopped making mistakes and turning the ball over, we were able to cut the lead very quickly.”
The second half played out brilliantly, with the two teams exchanging leads and momentum until the very end. Neither team led by more than three at any point between 17:39 and 00:28, a remarkable span of close play. In the end, however the Gauchos would come out on top, as junior guard Chris Spencer blocked Megan Harrison’s driving shot with 55 seconds to go, and the Gauchos hit their free throws to close out a 64-57 victory and an NCAA tournament berth.
That berth may not have resulted in an upset victory, but at the very least UCSB can be proud of another conference championship.
“People don’t even realize how difficult it can be,” Gottlieb said. “It’s difficult to win a championship. So many things have to go right. The most gratifying thing as a coach is to watch your players celebrate. If I felt any pressure, it was to help the seniors go out the way they wanted.”
One more conference crown and an invite to college basketball’s biggest stage? That sounds like a season to celebrate, indeed.