The UCSB women’s basketball team went into Stockton as the clear underdog. It left as a top contender for the Big West title.
Looking like the team that won the Big West Tournament Championship last year, the Gauchos won their fourth consecutive road victory, coming from behind to defeat conference leader Pacific 52-47.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster,” senior forward Sweets Underwood said. “To take out of the toughest teams in the league, it’s definitely exciting for us.”
This also marks the first time this season that UCSB has strung together three straight victories.
The win proved critical in the Big West standings as Santa Barbara moved into a three-way tie for second place with Cal Poly and Hawaii, trailing first-place Pacific by just one game. UCSB now stands at 11-12 overall and 7-4 in conference while the Tigers lost their second-straight game, dropping to 8-3 in league and 18-5 overall.
“I’m extremely proud — coming back from the deficit,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “We made the right decisions and we made big stops. As a coach, you just have to smile because it’s starting to come together.”
Not surprisingly, the Gauchos won the game on the defensive end. UCSB held Pacific, which leads the Big West in scoring at 71.5 points per game, to 24.5 points below its average.
“[Defense is] our team identity,” Underwood said. “People were at the right places at the right time, we had good rotation, help side was there, and we took a couple charges.”
The Gauchos also limited the Tiger’s three point shooting, allowing them to shoot just 21.7 percent from behind the arc, a much lower percentage than their leage-leading 34.7 percent average.
“What we did is we had four players in the lane and one player on the ball,” Mitchell said. “That was our strategy, to clog the lanes because last time it was a layup drill on us and we didn’t want to go down that way today.”
Down 10 halfway through the second half, junior guard Melissa Zornig converted a layup that sparked a 16-2 run that gave the Gauchos a 46-42 lead with 2:36 remaining.
“Our kids just started playing with a lot of confidence,” Mitchell said. “I think once they adjusted to the tempo of the game, we settled in. Sometimes when you’re backed into a corner, you come out fighting and that’s what we did in the second half.”
However, the very next play, UCSB gave up two offensive rebounds, resulting in a put-back by senior forward Ashley Smith. Then, senior forward Kendall Rodriguez buried a three to regain a one-point lead for Pacific.
Down a point with just under a minute left and in need of a basket, senior center Kirsten Tilleman received the ball on the wing and fed the ball in to Underwood, who went up for the short jump shot and was fouled. Underwood knocked down both free throws to give UCSB a 48-47 lead.
“That was an [isolation play],” Underwood said. “We were trying to get to the rim, finish or get a foul. They ended up fouling me, so that was awesome.”
With their tenacious ‘D,’ the Gauchos earned a stop on the opposite end, forcing Pacific to foul junior guard Nicole Nesbit with 18 seconds left on the game clock. UCSB’s best free-throw shooter stepped up to the line and calmly sank both free throws to give UCSB a 50-47 advantage.
With one offensive possession remaining for the Tigers, the Big West’s best offensive team was set to take on the conference’s best defensive squad. Rodriguez lined up a triple but Tilleman swatted the shot away, forcing Pacific to throw up a long fade away three.
“During that last timeout, we had seen that play (during the film of the Cal Poly vs. Pacific game) and we knew they were going to go to it,” Mitchell said. “We handled the ball side of the three for [senior guard Erica McKenzie] and we had players that made plays.”
Santa Barbara secured the rebound and Nesbit was able to clinch the game at the free throw line. Overall, the Gauchos shot 94.1 percent from the charity stripe.
Offensively, UCSB found its stride in the second half, outshooting Pacific 40 percent to 31 percent. In addition, after 10 first half turnovers, Santa Barbara gave the ball away just three times in the second half.
The offense was balanced, too, as the Gauchos featured three players in double-figures. Zornig led all scorers with 18 points including 3-5 from behind the arc, while Nesbit scored 13 points, 11 coming in the second half. Underwood tallied her ninth double-double of the season with 14 points, 10 of which came in the second half, and a career-high 16 rebounds. Finally, Tilleman added six points, eight rebounds, two blocks and a career-high tying four steals.
“We definitely came in here as the underdog, expected to lose and we came in here fired up and ready to win,” Zornig said.
To begin the game, UCSB struggled offensively, missing its first seven shots. Shooting just 23.1 percent, it looked as if there was a cover on the rim and the Gauchos quickly fell into a 24-11 hole. Nevertheless, Santa Barbara ended the half on a 7-2 run to go into the locker room down just single digits, 26-18.
“It was really frustrating because we’re getting open looks, but we couldn’t hit any shots,” Zornig said. “We just had to stay confident. We knew we were going to hit shots in the second half.”
Zornig single-handedly kept UCSB in the game during the first half, scoring 10 of the team’s 18 first half total.
“[Zornig] has a knack for scoring,” Mitchell said. “She has great moves around the basket and we all know she can knock it down.”
Pacific was relentless to open the second half though, going on a 7-1 run in the first three minutes of play. However, the Gauchos stole the momentum and would eventually outscore the Tigers 34-21 in the second half.
“We had some huge stops at the end,” Zornig said. “Our shot was off at the beginning of the game, but we found a way to knock down some shots at some critical moments.”
After two games up on the road, UCSB returns home for a three-game home stand beginning next Saturday against Cal Poly for the Play for Kay game.