Nine times in 12 years, the UCSB women’s basketball team served as also-rans in the NCAA Tournament, pit stops for other schools on their way to postseason territory unexplored by the Gauchos. Santa Barbara (27-7) refused to play another bit part in this year’s Big Dance however, pulling off two upsets in the first and second rounds to advance to its first Sweet 16 in school history.

UCSB fell to defending national champion University of Connecticut on Saturday in Hartford, Conn., 63-55, but it became just the seventh team seeded 11th or lower to advance to the third round and the fourth such team in the past five seasons.

Santa Barbara used every bit of its home-court advantage to stun the third-seeded Houston Cougars 56-52 in the second round of tournament play on March 22. Senior center Lindsay Taylor treated the Thunderdome crowd, which appeared larger than the listing of 4,061, to her 25th and final double-double in a Gaucho uniform with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

The visiting Cougars trailed 33-23 with 16 minutes remaining in the second half before embarking on a 13-2 run to give them a short-lived 36-35 lead. With 10:50 on the game clock, junior forward Kristen Mann fired a three-pointer to put the Gauchos back on top, and senior guard April McDivitt landed a second three-point bomb 90 seconds later to give UCSB a 41-36 advantage.

Santa Barbara Head Coach Mark French called a timeout after U.H. took its last lead of the night at 44-43 with just under six minutes to play, and the Gauchos gave the ball to Mann again for two of her 17 points and a lead that UCSB would not relinquish.

The T-Dome throng had two chances to celebrate an unprecedented moment in Gaucho women’s basketball history when the officials reviewed a late foul on videotape and added 2.1 seconds to the timer with the scoreboard reading 55-52 UCSB. After several fans rushed the floor and were subsequently cleared away, senior guard Lisa Willett sunk the first of her two free throws to make it a two-possession game and put a stamp on the Gauchos’ tenth bid for round three.

“I don’t know if I can put that into words,” Willett said of the win. “This year has been difficult at times, but we stuck together and pulled out something that we will all remember for a really long time.”

Cougar senior guard Chandi Jones led all scorers with 24 points, and added three blocks in her final collegiate performance. Houston junior forward Sancho Lyttle put up 15 points in 27 minutes of action before fouling out with 2:52 remaining in the game.

UCSB finally plowed through competition from the Lone Star State to break into the Sweet 16. The Gauchos lost to Texas Tech in Lubbock last year and to Texas in Austin in 2002, both second-round games.

Sixth-seeded Colorado didn’t do much more than show up to the first round on March 20, enduring a 76-49 Gaucho whipping thanks to a horrid 22 turnovers and a forgettable 28.6 shooting percentage. If not for an unorthodox technical foul against UCSB for not filing the starting lineup on time, the Buffaloes would not have held even their 1-0 lead before the opening tip.

Junior guard Mia Fisher took her game to the free throw line, burying 10 of 11 attempts en route to a floor-high 20 points. Mann shone again in the first round, tallying 16 points and five rebounds as the Gauchos’ main option due to Colorado’s double-teaming of Taylor, who was limited to nine points.

“I’m one of the go-to players on this team,” Mann, who averaged nearly 16 points a game in the postseason, said. “Not being able to get the ball in to Lindsay, I knew I had to step up.”

UCSB coasted through the Big West Tournament, needing only two wins to claim its eighth consecutive tournament title thanks to the new format which gives the top seeds an automatic berth in the semifinal. Santa Barbara polished off Long Beach State, 74-56, and met Idaho, the only Big West team to register a win against UCSB in 2004, in the championship game on March 13. Taylor torched the Vandals with 25 points in the Gauchos’ 68-51 rout and earned her third tournament MVP award, and Mann joined her on the all-tournament team.