Winning its 14th straight game over Cal State Northridge could not have come at a better time for the UCSB women’s basketball team.
The Gauchos defeated the matadors 45-31 in the quarterfinals of the Big West Tournament yesterday to earn a spot in the semifinals tomorrow at the Honda center.
“We know it’s March Madness. It’s a time to survive and advance,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “We’ve played a lot of ugly basketball this year, so it’s a familiar territory just to grind it out and find a way to win. It’s a ‘W’ and that’s all you can ask for.”
Santa Barbara improves to 16-15 overall and 3-0 against Northridge on the season while the Matadors finish their season at 16-16 overall.
Leading the Gauchos were their two All-Big West selections in senior forward Sweets Underwood and junior guard Nicole Nesbit. Underwood recorded a game-high 16 points and nine rebounds while Nesbit tallied 12 points on 6-9 shooting and a team-high three assists.
“Sweets has done an amazing job all year long of being calm and being very consistent in her play,” Mitchell said. “She’s a senior, she wants to keep her season alive and she stepped up and made big plays.”
Nesbit led the team in the first half, scoring eight of her 12 points in the opening period. Back-to-back jumpers from Nesbit capped off an 8-1 from UCSB to give the team a 12-5 lead early in the game.
From there, the first half became a defensive stalemate, as one might expect from the top two defensive teams in the Big West. After a five minute scoring drought for both teams, the Gauchos finally grabbed the momentum, ending the half on a 6-0 run to take a 22-13 lead into the locker rooms.
“I think we started attacking more,” Underwood said. “In that last timeout, Coach Mitch emphasized to us that transition is our best offense, so we had to get to the paint and attack them — try to score as many points in the paint as we could.”
Northridge’s 13 points ties for fifth in the UCSB record book for fewest points by an opponent in a first half.
“When I walked into the locker room, I went crazy on the team, even though everyone thinks I’m really calm most of the time,” Mitchell said. “When I huddled them up for the second half, I told them, ‘you’re right. You know I’m crazy, but you just held a team to 13 points.’ And 13 just happens to be my lucky number.”
UCSB’s didn’t let go of its lead in the second half as the Matadors were unable to cut Santa Barbara’s lead to fewer than seven points.
“We always stress the first four minutes of each half to set the tone,” Nesbit said. “When we came out in the second half, we knew that we just needed to keep our lead going and extend it.”
The Gauchos did in fact continue to build on their lead. Beginning with two free throws from Underwood after an intentional foul call on Northridge, Underwood caught fire, scoring eight straight points to give UCSB its largest lead of the game at 41-25 with just under five minutes remaining.
“It was definitely a physical game, but a key part of our team is mental toughness,” Underwood said. “Our motto is, ‘don’t let anything hold you back,’ so it’s just about brushing it off, even if you get fouled on the shot. It’s always the next play and the next shot you have.”
Defensively, Santa Barbara held Northridge to 31 points on 24 percent shooting, including 0-12 from three-point range. UCSB becomes the only team this season to shutout the Matadors from behind the arc this season. The Gauchos also outrebounded the Matadors 37-29.
“They did a great job [defensively],” Mitchell said. “We worked extremely hard on defensive end. This time of the year, hopefully it wins you some games.”
Winning in the Bren Events Center, the same arena where the playoff run began one year ago and resulted in a Big West Championship for UCSB, the Gauchos enter the semifinals tomorrow with momentum. However, they know that it’s a new year and will have to overcome a Cal Poly team they have yet to beat.
“It’s March Madness,” Nesbit said. “We know what we’re capable of looking at last year, but this year is a completely different year. We have our goals set, and we’re trying to achieve them.”
Tip-off tomorrow is set for approximately 2:30 p.m. at the Honda Center.
This article is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of the Daily Nexus.