It’s almost like déjà-vu.
As the UCSB women’s basketball team enters the Big West Tournament, its journey to the postseason seems exceptionally similar to last year.
The Gauchos have had a solid year, showing sparks of greatness at times while at others struggling with consistency. Nevertheless, they have won three straight games and enter the postseason with momentum.
Last year, despite being blown out at Pacific in a 20-point loss two games before entering playoffs, UCSB had shown throughout the season it could defeat any team in the Big West. In its final regular season game on the road, Santa Barbara defeated the Aggies for the first time in seven games to enter playoffs in stride. Then, as the underdog sixth seed, it then went on to win three straight games and win the Big West Championship.
“We all know that it’s win or go home, so there’s no reason I should have to light a fire under them or have to find some crazy way to motivate them,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “We were in the same situation last year and they should remember at least those emotions from what we’re going to have to do to win three games in a row.”
However, the team also knows back-to-back titles won’t come easy as the reigning Big West Tournament Champions have an extra target on its back in an already competitive conference.
“I told them, ‘it can’t be shazam.’ There’s no magic wand that’s going to allow it happen like it did last year.” Mitchell said. “That was a perfect script. I’d like it to be rewritten that exact same way, but it’s not going to happen. Every other team in the conference is a lot better.”
UCSB begins postseason play tomorrow night in the quarterfinals of the Big West Tournament at UC Irvine, the same location the Gauchos started their championship run last year. After earning a bye through the first round of play as a result of securing fourth place, Santa Barbara will play the highest remaining seed after tonight’s first round games.
That means the Gauchos could see Long Beach state, Cal state Northridge or UC Davis, teams that they have gone 5-1 against during regular season play.
“We’ve beaten them all, so it doesn’t matter who we play,” senior guard Nicole Nesbit said. “It’s going to be an all-out battle no matter who we play, but we’ll be ready for them.”
The Gauchos finished conference play at 11-7 and enter tonight’s game at 15-15 overall. Yet, UCSB knows that none of that matters now when it’s win or go home.
“Like coach said, we’re 0-0 now,” Nesbit said. “Everything’s kind of starting over. I think we’re excited to have a clean slate going into the Big West Tournament.”
The only thing UCSB hopes to take into the playoffs is its momentum as the Gauchos have won their last three games.
“[The momentum is] something we need to carry us through the tournament, but it’s a completely different mindset,” senior center Kirsten Tilleman said. “It’s about showing up on any given day and being the best team in the end. It’s do or die.”
In its last game at home for senior day, Santa Barbara won back-to-back home games for the first time this season, defeating UC Irvine 49-40. The game began with a perfect script for UCSB as its three seniors each scored a basket to start the game for UCSB.
Down the stretch, offensive rebounds earned the Gauchos the victory. A second chance basket by senior forward Sweets Underwood gave UCSB a four point lead with 50 seconds to go and would be enough to secure the win.
“I think that at different times in the game, different people stepped up,” Mitchell said. “We made plays. I’m proud of our kids and finding a way to pull it out late in the game.”
While the Gauchos won’t be playing at home, that might prove beneficial for UCSB. Santa Barbara has played some of its best basketball on the road and enters the Tournament with the second-best road record in the Big West at 8-5.
Not knowing which team it will face, UCSB has had no other option but to focus on itself.
“We have the skills, we have the talent and we know what we have to do, but it’s just doing that from the tip to the final buzzer,” Tilleman said. “Now during tournament play, everyone’s going to show up playing their best game, so we can’t have lapses where we’re not getting things done, so it’s having that focus and having that leadership.”
All season long, UCSB has won games with its defense. The team ranks first in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense, holding its opponents just 52.8 points per game and 36.0 percent shooting.
Defense will be especially critical not only to slow down the other team, but it also fuels the Gauchos’ offense. Santa Barbara is at its best when it can get out in transition.
“Everything runs through our defense,” Tilleman said. “Especially in these last few games, it’s obvious that we’re best offensively when we get a stop on defense and we can transition. If we let them score, we have to get into a set offense and they get to get into their defense.”
Despite ranking last in scoring offense, UCSB ranks third in field goal percentage, shooting 40.2 percent from the field. Execution will be very important for the Gauchos entering postseason play, considering the fact that they will most likely see zone defenses the majority of the tournament, which they have struggled against at times.
“Our offensive execution is more mental than anything, so we know that when we have to score, we will,” Nesbit said. “We just have to relax on offense, trust the patterns and just play basketball because Coach gives us all the freedom in the world. We have to know what to do with it.”
Leading the Gauchos offensively is Underwood, who was named to the Big West first team Monday. Underwood ranks tenth in the Big West in scoring with 11.9 points per game, fourth in rebounding with 9.3 per game and third in field goal percentage at 48.7 percent.
However, UCSB is not a team that relies on one player and has many who can step up. Nesbit, an All-Big West honorable mention this season, averages 10.6 points per game and junior guard Melissa Zornig averages 8.4 points per game. Senior guard Angelei Aguirre, junior guard Destini Mason and Tilleman have all proved they can step up when needed as well.
“Every player has played critical roles in helping us win games and that’s how we want to approach the tournament,” Mitchell said. “They’ve all been there, they’ve all helped us win different games in different ways and they should all be confident and know that at any moment, they’re name could be called.”
This year, UCSB is a veteran team. The team returns eight of its 11 players from last year’s roster that took the conference tournament title, so experience could give Santa Barbara the edge.
“The games are back to back to back and you’re just out there having fun,” Nesbit said. “It’s an exciting time of the year – March Madness. This is what any college player is waiting for, so we’re excited.”
Tip-off Wednesday at the Bren Events Center is set for 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first game, which begins at 6 p.m.
This article is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of the Daily Nexus.