Back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2005, the UCSB women’s basketball team gave its ranked opponent quite a scare before the music stopped.

The 13th-seeded Gauchos (23-8) led fourth-seeded Virginia late in the first half of their NCAA Tournament first-round game on March 23 in Norfolk, Va. before the #24 Cavaliers (24-10) found another gear and cruised to an 86-52 victory. With four players reaching double figures in scoring, and a 47-31 rebounding advantage, the Cavaliers quickly extended a nine-point halftime lead in front of a local crowd.

“They have a lot of weapons and a lot of kids that played real well, and we just couldn’t keep them off the glass,” Head Coach Mark French said. “They played a great game.”

Senior guard Jessica Wilson led the way for the Gauchos with 13 points in her final appearance as a Gaucho. Wilson played only 24 minutes before fouling out late in the second half. Freshman forward Ashlee Brown showed that she’s ready to take the scoring reigns from Wilson with a 10-point performance to go along with six rebounds.

“[Ashlee] played well on a big stage, and I’m sure that’s going to be great motivation for her during the spring and summer,” French said.

UCSB had a one-point lead with 9:15 remaining in the first half, but like the good teams always do, the Cavaliers went on a half-closing run to take a 39-30 lead into the locker rooms. Virginia came out firing in the second half, and with Wilson and junior guard Lauren Pedersen spending long stretches on the bench due to foul trouble, the Cavaliers extended their lead with ease. Senior guard Sharnee Zoll – the Atlantic Coast Conferences all-time assists leader – finished with 13 points and four assists, while junior forwards Aisha Mohammed and Lyndra Littles combined for 32 points and 17 rebounds. Despite leading the ACC in scoring this season, sophomore guard Monica Wright was shut down by the Gauchos, and scored only six points on zero-for-10 shooting from the field.

The Cavaliers made six more field goals than the Gauchos, but the game was really won on the boards and at the line, where Virginia went 31-of-38, as opposed to Santa Barbara, which shot only 12-of-19 at the charity stripe.

“In general, our inability to keep them from penetrating and keeping them from the foul line hurt us,” French said. “They were a bit too quick and athletic for us, and they certainly responded magnificently in the second half.”

After handing UCSB its worst defeat of the season, Virginia went on to lose its second-round game in overtime to Old Dominion. For UCSB, the loss dropped the program to 7-12 all time in the NCAA Tournament, with the last win coming in 2004 when the Gauchos marched all the way to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual National Champion Connecticut.

UCSB earned the trip to the Big Dance after defeating UC Davis 74-59 in the Big West Tournament Championship game on Mar. 15 in Anaheim, securing the program’s 12th tournament title. The second-seeded Aggies (19-11) became only the second team in league history to make the championship game in their first year in the conference, after disposing of two-time defending league champion UC Riverside, but the Gauchos committed a season-low six turnovers and displayed their depth in overcoming a sluggish start to pull away from Davis.

With senior Jessica Campbell leading the way, Davis took a 24-14 lead midway through the first half. Wearing their alternate yellow jerseys, which usually indicate a focus on defense, the Gauchos had trouble stopping the Aggies from getting good looks from outside. Unable to slow down the Davis offense, the Gauchos answered on the other end instead, making six-of-eight first-half three-pointers and using a 14-0 run to take a 38-34 lead at halftime.

“They were knocking down some big threes, and for us to go down and do the same thing was really big,” junior guard Sha’Rae Gibbons said. “I think our ability to be aggressive despite them shooting really well in the first half was a huge plus for us.”

UC Davis went on a run of its own, coming out of the locker rooms to pull even at 42, but the Gauchos quickly responded with a 17-2 run to take a double-digit lead. Keeping its own mistakes to a minimum while forcing 18 Aggie turnovers allowed Santa Barbara to dictate the pace, turning the second half into a track meet at times. With Wilson leading the way, UCSB dominated after the break, and calm free throw shooting down the stretch allowed the Gauchos to quell any potential Aggie rallies.

“We wanted the tempo to be up-and-down,” French said. “We were talking about our defense because they were getting a lot of wide-open threes and penetrations. Gradually, as we picked up our defense, it allowed us to get out and run. I think the team felt we were attacking well; we just needed to tighten up and create situations were we could get out and run.”

Wilson led the way with a team-high 16 points, along with seven rebounds and five assists as she picked up the Big West Conference Tournament MVP after earlier being named the conference’s Player of the Year. Gibbons followed up a 15-point performance in UCSB’s 77-57 semifinal victory over Cal Poly the day before by scoring 13 points in the title game. Gibbons was named to the All-Tournament Team, although her season would later come to a more subdued end as she was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament game with an ankle injury. After being named Big West Defensive Player of the Year following the season, junior forward Whitney Warren showed off her offensive skills throughout the weekend. Warren scored a season-high 10 points against the Mustangs, and then increased that total the next day with 12 points against the Aggies, earning a spot on the all-tournament team in the process. After having five players reach double-figures against Cal Poly, the Gauchos had four players accomplish the feat in the title game, with junior center Kat Suderman chipping in 11 points.

UCSB won 19 of 21 games to finish the season and despite the losses of Wilson and senior guard Chisa Ononiwu, Santa Barbara appears well positioned to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament next season. Four starters return, along with soon-to-be sixth-year senior center Jenna Green, who took a medical redshirt this season. With Green, Suderman and Brown set to form an imposing rotation in the post, the Gauchos will also once again trot out the best backcourt in the league in Gibbons and Pedersen. In addition, UCSB should benefit from the continued growth of underclassmen like freshman forward Margaret Johnson and sophomore guards Meagan Williams, Ariana Gnekow and Jordan Franey. Wisconsin transfer Christine Spencer and redshirt freshman guard Courtney Collishaw are also expected to make an impact.

“Programs go kind of sequentially in waves, and we’ve been down for a couple of years and this team got us back in the right direction and put us in a very good position for next year. I will remember this team as kind of the team that got us out of that two-year downspin and put us back as a dominating force in the Big West [Conference],” French said.