Kirsten Tilleman is a lot of things to the UCSB women’s basketball team, but in a word, she is selfless.
The junior center is known for doing a lot of the dirty work on the court, sacrificing her body in any way possible to get her team a win, or even just another possession.
“You can’t teach heart and you can’t teach effort,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “Not once have I ever had to get on her or tell her to step it up because she brings that every minute, every practice and every game.”
In fact, a great deal of what Tilleman brings to her team is things that won’t be found on a stats sheet.
“We’d refer to her as a blue-collar player,” junior forward Sweets Underwood said. “She’s someone who does the little things; like she’s always going to be the one there on help side to take a charge. She’s going to try to grab every single rebound. It’s all the little things that can help us win a game.”
During the course of a game, the Bozeman, Montana native spends a good amount of time on the ground, diving for loose balls or standing up after taking one of her many charges.
“I think it’s natural,” Tilleman said. “[I’m] going to do anything [I] can to contribute to the team and to the game and that means diving for the ball. It means giving everything you have.”
Tilleman’s propensity to embrace the physicality is especially important on a team that is often undersized. Tilleman, at 6’1”, usually faces a height disadvantage herself, guarding the other team’s tallest and most physical player.
“I enjoy it,” Tilleman said. “I think I might not be the most athletic or the strongest person on the court, but I try to use my body well.”
The idea that rebounding and defense are not entirely based on size and strength is apparent in Tilleman’s game, and echoed by her head coach.
“Some of it is will, but she also knows how to use her body,” Mitchell said. “A lot of times, people don’t understand positioning or angles and it’s obvious she understands. That’s why she can guard 6’4’’ [players] and tip a lot of the balls away.”
As a result, Tilleman is second best on the team in steals, averaging 1.1 a game.
“Naturally for me on the court, I want to play defense,” Tilleman said. “I take a lot of pride in not letting a player I’m guarding score, but also in helping out my teammates.”
But what really sets Tilleman apart is her rebounding. She leads her team and ranks third in the Big West in rebounding overall at 8.1 per game.
“I always think rebounding is one of the most important aspects of the game because it gets you possessions and it keeps possessions from the other team,” Tilleman said. “It’s really demoralizing when you play defense for 30 seconds and you get a great stop, but you don’t secure the rebound because none of that matters. They get another shot at the basket.”
In conference, she is number two in offensive rebounds (3.2) and sixth in defensive rebounds (4.6).
“I think it comes down to anticipating where the ball is going, but also blocking out,” Tilleman said. “You learn it from day one when you begin basketball … but I’m not 6’4’’, so [I] have to do those little things … and maybe bang around a few people.”
The numbers are consistent, too. She maintains her defensive intensity and hits the glass night in and night out.
“At the end of the day, you know you’re going to get your six to eight points and 10 or 12 rebounds,” Mitchell said. “As a coach, that makes you feel real confident and probably as a teammate you’d feel good about knowing that, taking that shot, she’ll be there for the rebound.”
Mitchell has awarded Tilleman for her strong play. She plays 30.1 minutes per contest, the second most on the team.
“I think she’s always been used to being backed up against the wall or maybe been told that because of her size, she couldn’t do this or do that,” Mitchell said. “So I think she’s always had that edge about her, trying to always prove herself and that’s how she plays.”
One of the things that struck me most about Tilleman though, was her passion. She loves the game, and it shines through on the floor.
“I always see [basketball] as a chance for me to go out there and let everything else going on in my life just go and have fun and enjoy that connection I have with my teammates,” Tilleman said. “I like working hard and I like the satisfaction at the end of the game knowing that [I] gave everything.”
When asked about her goals moving forward, Tilleman didn’t focus on anything too individualistic, but talked about what she could do for the program.
“I want to be able to help bring this team together, to lift us up,” Tilleman said. “It’s not been the ideal season, but we still have a lot of it left and what it really boils down to is that we’re all still fighting for — that tournament at the end of the year. That’s what matters.”
There’s certainly nothing selfish about that.