In ending its Cinderella story season, the UCSB women’s basketball team brought home something better than a prince — a Big West Championship and an automatic berth into the Big Dance.
It was the first time a number six seed has ever won the Big West Tournament, as the Gauchos overcame Long Beach State 63-54, beating three teams in their journey to the title that UCSB was just 1-5 against in the regular season.
“The Gauchos are back,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “I let a smile out before the final buzzer went off and a few tears in the locker room because only these young ladies and our small group understand what we’ve gone through this year. At the end of the day, this is why you play the game–for March Madness and a chance to cut down nets.”
It was a tough regular season for the Gauchos indeed. After winning the Big West a season ago, UC Santa Barbara experienced a lot of change, beginning with a new Head Coach. For a while, it seemed as if the team would be the first since 1989-90 to not finish over .500 in conference.
The team was not going to give up though and all season long, Mitchell reiterated that her team would peak when it mattered most in March and that winning the Big West title would be the greatest legacy her team, especially the seniors could leave. The Gauchos won nine of their last 11 games.
“I honestly think that just set it up for a better story,” senior guard Emilie Johnson said. “When we were at that low point, I never stopped believing and I knew this team could do something special. All the hard times that we went through this year…I wouldn’t trade it for this moment right now.”
And as the title game came to a close, it was evident in the team the obstacles they had faced and overcame. With under a minute left, Johnson exited from her final Big West game with tears of joy and as that final buzzer sounded, the team flooded the court. Johnson, along with senior forward Kelsey Adrian, was embraced in celebration. The team couldn’t get those championship t-shirt on quicker.
“To the world, we’ve probably done the impossible, but to me it’s everything I expected when I took this job,” Mitchell said. “Like I told them, it would’ve been easy for them to jump ship with a new coach and a change in philosophy, but at the end of the day, the seniors led the way. They wanted to leave their legacy, which was a Big West Championship, so I only have to thank them for believing in me.”
Playing for the seniors were their teammates. The player of the game and MVP of the tournament was junior center Kirsten Tilleman, who tallied 16 points and 11 boards. Sophomore guard Melissa Zornig was named to the All-tournament team, averaging a tremendous 16.7 in the final three games.
“I wasn’t expecting that… I wasn’t thinking about awards like that,” Tilleman said. “It’s really just a reflection of my teammates and my coaches. They make it possible for anybody on this team to step up any given night. It’s a great feeling right now.”
And then there is Mitchell, who won a Big West title in her first year ever as a Head Coach. Coming from well-respected Rutgers, the players bought into her defensive mindset and rode it all the way to a title.
“When someone is able to push you, but still allow you to have fun, that makes you want to play for them,” Tilleman said. “I want to play for Coach Mitch and I think that’s showing on the floor from the whole team.”
The first half certainly exhibited UCSB’s defense as the team went into halftime with a marginal 21-20 lead. Both teams shot approximately 28 percent from the field.
After taking a nine point lead to begin the second half, Long Beach took a timeout and the 49’ers responded. Freshman guard Alex Sanchez sparked a 13-3 run and the Beach took its first lead on a three point bomb from sophomore guard Hallie Meneses.
UCSB’s leading three point shooter, Adrian, answered with a trey of her own to give the Gauchos a two-point lead, a lead they would never relinquish.
“We were feeling it in the second half,” Zornig said. “As a shooter, you have to keep your confidence up and keep shooting the ball no matter what.”
The best player on both teams struggled. Both Johnson and Long Beach senior Tipesa Moorer were held scoreless. For the 49’ers, Sanchez led the team offensively with 17 points, while freshman Devin Hudson also contributed 15 points and 14 boards.
After scoring just 21 points in the first half, UCSB shot 51.7 percent from the field in the second half and put 42 points on the board, double of what the team scored in the first period. That would be enough to give UCSB its 14th title, the most in Big West history.
“I have to thank Coach Stringer for preparing me for this opportunity, but I told the young ladies before the game, ‘I’ve worn my national championship ring and my Big East Championship ring,’” Mitchell said. “I told them that I would take them off and never wear them again because I’m a Gaucho, but they had to get me a ring today and that’s what they did.”
To reach the championship game, the Gauchos put a complete game together. They defeated Pacific 84-66 and got revenge on the team that knocked them out in the first round the year before.
“We came in with a chip on our shoulder, knowing how horrible it felt last year to top the conference and lose to one of the last seeds on your home floor,” Nesbit said. “So when we came out here, we knew we had to play a solid forty minutes to get the win.”
While known for playing in low scoring games, it was impossible to guess that the Gauchos were dead last in scoring. The 84 points is a season high for UCSB and three players finished with at least 20 points for the Gauchos. Zornig and Nesbit, finished with 23 and 20 points, respectively. Both are career highs for the sophomore guards. Johnson also finished with 20 points, hitting 10-12 at the free throw line to clinch the game.
“I was struggling a bit during season and this is the time to turn it on,” Zornig said. “I wanted to come in, step up, and do whatever I can to help this team win.”
After taking a 37-28 lead into halftime, UOP immediately closed the gap to four to begin the second half. However, UCSB pulled away, tallying 47 second half points.
“I’m excited for [Emilie] and Kelsey to have a chance for a Big West Championship,” Mitchell said. “It means everything to me even though I’ve only had a year to coach them. As seniors, they’ve meant so much to this program. We’re jumping on their backs and seeing how far they can take us.”
With a Big West Championship and a potential run in the NCAA tournament, the Gauchos have certainly left their legacy.