After locking up the fourth seed for the Big West Tournament Thursday night, the UCSB women’s basketball team had just two goals Saturday afternoon: winning its final game at home for its seniors and gaining momentum heading into the postseason.
With a 49-41 victory over UC Irvine, the Gauchos accomplished both.
“It’s really important obviously for us to be playing at our best basketball right now and especially as seniors, knowing that this is our last chance, we don’t have any other option than to go out there with energy and focus,” senior center Kirsten Tilleman said.
Playing on senior day and in its final game of the regular season, Santa Barbara improved to 11-7 in conference and returned to .500 at 15-15 overall. The Anteaters, on the other hand, finished their regular season with a 5-13 league record and a 9-21 overall mark.
“I told [the seniors] before the game started that we still have a lot of basketball left, but this is a day where the community, the fans and their teammates can show their appreciation of what they’ve meant to this program on and off the court,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “As a coach, I’ll come back and thank them in a year or two. Until then, I’ve still got to ride their butts for three more games and then I’ll think about what the future will be like without them. Until that point, I want them to enjoy this day. It’s a special day.”
A better beginning to the game could not have been written for the Gauchos, whose seniors came out on fire. On the very first play of the afternoon, senior forward Sweets Underwood came up with a block and Tilleman secured the defensive rebound.
On the opposite end of the floor, UCSB went straight to its high-low game. A pass from Tilleman to Underwood down low put Santa Barbara up 2-0. The Gauchos’ second basket came on a 15-foot jumper from senior guard Angelei Aguirre. Then, with a layup from Tilleman, UCSB went up 6-0 and very fittingly, all three of UCSB’s seniors had scored.
“We had it scripted. I don’t know if you guys knew that, but the seniors would score the first three buckets of the game, so it was all a plan,” Mitchell joked after the game. “Once again, I’m brilliant.”
A baseline jumper from Tilleman put the Gauchos up 10-5 with all 10 points coming from the seniors. However, as both teams settled into the game, turnovers began to plague both sides. 11 combined turnovers in the first 11 minutes of play resulted in a sloppy game with neither team able to establish any sort of rhythm offensively.
“They play a really high and wide zone, often a 1-3-1,” Tilleman said. “We’ve always struggled with that and we do best when we’re doing transition offense and don’t have to run anything, so I think it just took us a while to respond to that. [Irvine] was our first game of conference play and our last, so I think we improved, but we still have a lot of room to get better against those types of defenses.”
UCSB went down 10-12, but was down for a total of just 26 seconds as the team finally found its stride, responding with an 8-1 run. However, the Gauchos started missing easy shots, finishing the half on 1-5 shooting. As a result, Santa Barbara entered halftime up by just one point at 20-19.
“We got a lot of open looks today,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes they don’t fall, but if you continue to be consistent in the other areas you can control, it gives you an opportunity to win like it did tonight.”
Up two with just over two minutes remaining, UCSB continued to earn itself possessions through hustle plays, keeping control of the ball for 1:15. Tilleman rebounded the ball on the defensive end and then went to work on the offensive glass, knocking the ball off of Irvine to earn Santa Barbara control of the ball.
After junior guard Nicole Nesbit was fouled at half court, she took the inbounds pass and drove to the basket. Despite missing the layup, Underwood was there for the offensive board. Missing the first putback attempt, Underwood continued to go after the ball, grabbing her own miss and converting the second chance layup to put the Gauchos up 43-39 with 50 seconds to go.
“Our team plays well when our backs are against the wall,” Underwood said. “We know we will give it our all to get that win. So I’m thinking, ‘okay I missed the first layup. I’m going to get this rebound and lay it back up.’”
After a missed shot by Irvine, the Anteaters were forced to play the fouling game. Nesbit went 6-6 from the free throw line down the stretch, icing the game for UCSB.
Overall, Nesbit scored a game-high 17 points while Underwood and Tilleman finished with 12 and eight points, respectively. Junior guard Destini mason grabbed a team-high 11 boards for UCSB and Aguirre tallied a team-high four assists.
On the defensive end, UCSB was solid once again, holding the Anteaters to 23.1 percent shooting and outrebounding them 38-33.
“I want our team to take pride in knowing if the team should only have 30 points, let’s only let them score 30,” Mitchell said. “We take a lot of pride in our defense. I don’t think that’s anything new to this group, but it will help us win a lot of games, especially as we get to March Madness.”
While the game has no postseason implications, Santa Barbara knows the importance of entering playoffs with momentum.
“You always want to win your last one and our last one just happened to be senior day for us,” Mitchell said. “We haven’t really worried about the record up until this point because now we understand that we’re 0-0. You’re next game is your last game, so these kids will know that every night, we’re backed into a corner and that’s how we’ll have to play is game by game.”
Last year’s Big West Tournament Champions have now won three straight games and back-to-back home games for the first team this season.
“There’s no magic wand that’s going to allow it to happen like it did last year,” Mitchell said. “That was a perfect script. I’d like it to be rewritten that exact same way, verbatim, but it’s not going to happen. Every other team in the conference is a lot better. You have Pacific and Hawaii that we know we can beat and you have Cal Poly, who at this point last year I think was undefeated or had one loss, so it’s kind of ironic how everything’s set back up where if we take care of ourselves, then we could put ourselves in that position again.”
UCSB will begin postseason play Wednesday, playing the highest remaining seed from Tuesday’s first round games.
This article is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of the Nexus.