For the first time in ten years, the UCSB women’s basketball team watched somebody else head to the NCAA tournament, after losing to UC Riverside in the final round of the Big West Tournament on March 11 at the Anaheim Convention Center.
On the final day, UC Riverside rose to the challenge of facing the defending champion Gauchos and sent them home in a thrilling 59-58 victory that came down to the last seconds of the contest.
“It seemed like they had nerves of steel,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said. “They really made a lot of shots when they needed to.”
Sophomore center and tournament MVP Kemie Nkele was a major factor for UC Riverside, but fouled out with 7:25 left and her team up 45-42. Fortunately for the Highlanders, her teammates stepped up and four players for UC Riverside ended the game in double digits, with sophomore guard Vanessa Campillo leading the way with 15, Nkele with 13, freshman forward Amber Cox contributing 12 and freshman guard Seyram Gbewonyo adding 11.
“We didn’t know if we were going to win or lose,” UC Riverside Head coach John Margaritis said. “But we were not scared, and we did not play scared.”
Sophomore guard Jessica Wilson had a chance to win the game after a missed free throw by Gbewonyo was corralled by the Gauchos and passed to Wilson. Wilson pushed the ball up court and put up a running layup that bounced off the rim just before the buzzer sounded to secure UC Riverside’s first trip to the NCAA
“I just saw that they were looking down and I saw the lane open,” Wilson said. “I just saw that time was running out and just took it.”
Wilson led Santa Barbara with 17 points in the contest and was named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team along with her teammate sophomore forward/center Jenna Green.
UCSB rolled to the finals, dispatching Cal State Northridge 66-61 in the semifinals, after the top-seeded Gauchos had a bye in the quarterfinals. The Gauchos (16-14 overall) were led by Green who tallied a career-high 24 points – the most points scored by any Gaucho all season.
“We are a young team and I know at least I was nervous,” Green said. “But we never lost composure out there, and that was huge.”
Santa Barbara never trailed, but junior guard LaJoyce King kept it close by scoring 18 points and pulling down 19 rebounds including a tournament-record 12 offensive boards. King scored seven of the Matadors’ nine final points in the first half to shrink a 12-point deficit to only two as the teams headed into the locker rooms with the Gauchos leading 30-28.
“I wanted to win so bad,” King said. “It sucks because everybody didn’t expect us to get this far and we wanted to prove them wrong and go all the way.”
After nine consecutive conference tournament championship victories, Santa Barbara finally dropped one and did not receive an at-large bid to participate in the NCAA Tournament. They did, however, earn a berth in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT). The Gauchos faced off against Fresno State in the preliminary round and were handily defeated by the Bulldogs in a 78-59 contest in the Save Mart Center in Fresno. Despite the uncharacteristic poor showing in the postseason for Santa Barbara, the Gauchos remained positive in their season’s performance.
“We’ve come a long way,” Wilson said. “We began 0-6, just being in the championships game, it gives us motivation to come back next year.”