Cases of Andre have been flying off the shelves for a Gaucho pennant celebration since Saturday night, when the UCSB women’s basketball team ran over UC Riverside to lock up its 12th Big West conference title in the last 13 years.
“I think that one of our goals was to win the Big West season championship, and I’m very proud of our team for succeeding in that goal,” Head Coach Mark French said. “Of course, now the team knows to focus on our other goals, like winning the Big West Tournament.”
Santa Barbara has been the class of the Big West for over a decade now, and this year’s trophy goes to a team that has methodically demolished the conference. The Gauchos (19-7 overall, 13-1 in the Big West) came off a close loss to UC Davis last week to beat the Highlanders (13-13, 10-4 Big West) 70-62 to complete the season sweep. The win pushes the upstart Aggies (17-10, 11-4 Big West) out of the reach of the season title, and Santa Barbara will head into the conference tournament as the #1 seed.
“I think [clinching the #1 seed] will probably allow us to rest some of our kids that have played a lot of minutes in our practices and games this week,” French said. “It allows us to work on some of the things we still need to do without as much pressure on this weekend’s games.”
With little love lost between the two teams and playoff seeds on the line, both squads came out Saturday with intense demeanors. Riverside, after nabbing the title away from the Gauchos last year, has fought unsuccessfully to stay at the top of the conference, and Santa Barbara has crushed the team’s attempts with revenge for last year in mind. History and future implications led to a rough game with 44 fouls and three ejections after a second-half fight. Despite a physical first half, things didn’t really get wild until midway through the second, when junior center Kat Suderman deflected a pass aimed for Highlander forward Tainoisouti Lott and both players who dove for the ball headed out of bounds. After their flying collision on the sideline, a small dust-up broke out and two players got tossed, along with senior guard Jessica Wilson.
“I would say scuffle would be the better word than fight,” French said. “When the refs came over and told me their decision, I asked what their definition of fighting was, but they weren’t willing to argue semantics. I mean, look at a hockey game if you want to see what a fight looks like. Now that I’ve looked at the videotape, I’m astounded at their interpretation of fighting. Kat was lying on the ground with another player on top of her, and she pushed the other players off her, and the other player pushed back. I would hardly call that fighting. I’ve never had a player ejected in 29 years; there are a lot of things you can do to keep misbehaving players in check. Ejections should be the last resort; it wasn’t the Detroit Pistons out there jumping into the stands and beating up fans or anything. I have no reason to be upset with Jessica or Kat, and it ended up working out well because Kat got a chance to rest her knees and Jessica got a chance to cheer for once.”
With the loss of their two leading scorers and rebounders, the Gauchos looked to the bench to carry them to the championship, and the reserves led the way with 40 points. Freshman forward Ashlee Brown had a sensational night off the bench, leading all scorers with 22 points off of six-of-10 shooting and hitting 10-of-11 free throws. Brown bested her previous career-high of 15 points, and also grabbed five boards.
“This is the time of the year when some freshman are non-freshman, and that’s what Ashlee is,” French said. “She had an outstanding night. When she comes in the game, she’s not in there to rest Kat, but in there to dominate the game.”
Brown picked up the load on a night that saw Santa Barbara’s starters off their best. Senior guard Chisa Ononiwu also had a good night, coming from the sideline with 11 points, four rebounds and a pair of assists. Suderman, despite only playing 14 minutes before getting bounced, scored 10 to round out the Gauchos in double figures.
“It’s a significant happening for us to have Chisa play well,” French said. “Her athleticism, skill and ability to knock down shots are integral to this team, and I know everyone gets excited when she is doing well.”
Both teams looked a bit tentative opening the game, but Santa Barbara fired things up first and jumped out to an early 11-2 lead. But Riverside soon had its turn, and a 10-0 Highlander run put the home team up by one. The Gauchos pushed back, stretching their lead back to five, but Riverside closed the gap and went into the locker room up 31-29.
UCSB had previously only won twice when down at the half, and the loss of Suderman and Wilson did not bode well for them pulling out their third come-from-behind win. But after trading the lead for the first 10 minutes, the Gauchos began to pull away, and junior guard Sha’Rae Gibbons’ deep trey with six minutes to play gave the team its biggest lead at 60-50. Riverside managed to run all the way back to a 64-62 deficit with a minute left, but junior guard Whitney Warren drove and had a beautiful finish to bring the Santa Barbara lead back to four. With time running out, UCR was forced to foul, and Brown and junior guard Lauren Pedersen hit a pair of free throws each to seal the win and the season championship.
“I think we got a big boost after the ejections actually; we went on a run right after that,” French said. “Whitney Warren had a huge shot with 50 seconds to play, when she ducked under a streaking forward to roll in a beautiful left-hander. That was a big-time pressure basket. I would have to say there is a little added sweetness to clinch this year’s championship on the home court of the team that stole it from us last year.”
The Big West Champion Gauchos have just two games left in the season, and they will be showing off a fresh pennant to the home crowd with their final two appearances in the Thunderdome this season. First, Santa Barbara will dance with Northridge this Thursday at 7 p.m., and then will salute the team’s seniors in the team’s final game against Long Beach State on Saturday at 2 p.m.