The bad news last night was that UCSB didn’t score a basket from the field in the last 10.5 minutes of play. The good news, however, was that it set a school record for free throws both made and taken, scored 79 points and claimed its 10th straight Big West Conference title.
With Long Beach and Santa Barbara (the two top teams in the Big West) set to face off this Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Thunderdome with a lone game separating them in the standings, it seemed that all the makings were there for a climactic season finale.
With an authoritative 79-53 win over foul-happy Irvine (6-20 overall, 5-12 in the Big West) and Cal Poly’s gift of an upset over Long Beach, however, the Gauchos (18-8 overall, 15-2 Big West) celebrated their 10th straight championship a few days early.
“With all the injuries we’ve had this year and all the stuff we’ve gone through, it feels great to be champs – especially for the seniors [four years in a row],” senior forward Kristen Mann said. “It does mean a lot more than previous years [for me]; we’ve struggled a lot and it is my senior year.”
Irvine did its part to help the Gauchos to the title by sending them to the line a record-breaking 50 times. UCSB did its part as well, dropping 42 (84 percent) of those attempts en route to setting a new school record for the number of free throws made in a game.
Benefiting most from the foul fest was senior guard Mia Fisher, who added eight points in 10 attempts to her 12 points from the field, recording an even 20 on the night. But in the moment of truth, senior forward Kate Bauman sunk the record-breaking free throw.
“That’s the kind of game it was; each and every game you have a different set of refs and it’s your responsibility to adjust to them,” Fisher said. “If not, then you’re not going to be able to run that much and you’re going to have a lot of fouls; [we had] back-to-back fouls forever.”
Irvine boasts last week’s Big West Player of the Week in senior forward Ashley Biggins, but she failed to put up a single point last night.
With over a minute left on the clock, the home game well out of reach and the result already in from San Luis Obispo, the announcement was made to a crowd of 1,025 that the Gauchos’ reign over the Big West Conference would continue for one more year.
“I’m very proud of [the team], they picked it up; we’re running well and we played great defense tonight,” Head Coach Mark French said. “The trick now is to continue that momentum and carry it right into the Big West Tournament.”
The seemingly premature championship turns the focus of tomorrow’s game away from the streak of now 10 straight league titles, emphasizing instead the seeding battle for the Big West Tournament.
The night, however, will belong to four seniors who will play their last in the Thunderdome against a team they’ve beaten 27 consecutive times — squeezing out the last victory in the Big West season opener 85-80 in overtime. Mann, Bauman, Fisher and forward Brandy Richardson are the quartet of elders who will say goodbye.
“We’ve had a big time rivalry with them ever since I’ve been here, and it’s always been tough playing against them,” Mann said. “I’m looking forward to playing them, especially on Senior Night. There’s going to be a lot of emotion, but it’s just going to be a great basketball game.”