In ending its Cinderella story season, the UCSB women’s basketball team brought home something better than a prince this past weekend in Anaheim: a Big West championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
It was the first time a No. 6 seed has ever won the Big West Tournament, as the Gauchos overcame Long Beach State 63-54, beating three teams in their journey to the title.
“To the world, we’ve probably done the impossible, but to me it’s everything I expected when I took this job,” Mitchell said. “Like I told them, it would’ve been easy for them to jump ship with a new coach and a change in philosophy, but at the end of the day, the seniors led the way. They wanted to leave their legacy, which was a Big West Championship, so I only have to thank them for believing in me.”
After winning the Big West regular season last year, UCSB experienced a lot of change during the offseason, highlighted with the addition of Coach Mitchell. For much of this season, it seemed as if the team would be the first since 1989-90 to not finish over .500 in conference.
Mitchell reiterated all season long that her team would peak when it mattered most in March, and that winning the Big West title would be the greatest legacy her team, especially the seniors, could leave.
The squad responded over the past few weeks, winning nine of its final 11 games.
“I honestly think that just set it up for a better story,” senior guard Emilie Johnson said. “When we were at that low point, I never stopped believing and I knew this team could do something special.”
Playing for the seniors were their teammates. The player of the game and MVP of the tournament was junior center Kirsten Tilleman, who tallied 16 points and 11 boards, eight on the offensive end. Sophomore guard Melissa Zornig was named to the All-tournament team, averaging a tremendous 16.7 in the final three games.
“I wasn’t expecting that… I wasn’t thinking about awards like that,” Tilleman said. “It’s really just a reflection of my teammates and my coaches. They make it possible for anybody on this team to step up any given night. It’s a great feeling right now.”
And then there is Mitchell, who won a Big West title in her first year ever as a Head Coach. Coming from well-respected Rutgers, the players bought into her defensive mindset and rode it all the way to a title.
“When someone is able to push you, but still allow you to have fun, that makes you want to play for them,” Tilleman said. “I want to play for Coach Mitch and I think that’s showing on the floor from the whole team.”
The first half certainly exhibited UCSB’s defense as the team went into halftime with a marginal 21-20 lead. Both teams shot approximately 28 percent from the field through the opening 20 minutes.
After taking a quick nine-point lead in the second half, Long Beach responded with a 13-3 run and the 49’ers took their first lead on a three point bomb from sophomore guard Hallie Meneses.
Adrian, UCSB’s leading three-point shooter, answered with a trey of her own to give the Gauchos a two-point lead that they would never relinquish.
“We were feeling it in the second half,” Zornig said. “As a shooter, you have to keep your confidence up and keep shooting the ball no matter what.”
The best player on both teams struggled. Both Johnson and Long Beach senior Tipesa Moorer were held scoreless. For the 49’ers, Sanchez led the team offensively with 17 points, while freshman Devin Hudson also contributed 15 points and 14 boards.
After scoring just 21 points in the first half, UCSB shot 51.7 percent from the field in the second half and put 42 points on the board, double of what the team scored in the first period.
“I told the young ladies before the game, ‘I’ve worn my national championship ring and my Big East Championship ring,’” Mitchell said. “I told them that I would take them off and never wear them again because I’m a Gaucho, but they had to get me a ring today and that’s what they did.”
To reach the championship, the Gauchos had to first overcome a University of Pacific squad that had beaten them during both of the teams’ regular season meetings. UCSB’s 84 points against UOP was a season high, and three players finished with at least 20 points for the Gauchos. Zornig and Nesbit finished with career highs of 23 and 20 points apiece, while Johnson tallied 20 of her own on 10-12 shooting from the free throw line.
“I’m excited for [Emilie] and Kelsey to have a chance for a Big West Championship,” Mitchell said. “It means everything to me even though I’ve only had a year to coach them. As seniors, they’ve meant so much to this program. We’re jumping on their backs and seeing how far they can take us.”
UCSB now faces Baylor in first round action of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament next Sunday, March 18.