ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Gauchos are back where they belong.
The UC Santa Barbara women's basketball team completed its run through the Big West Tournament on Saturday by capturing its 14th tournament crown – easily the most in conference history – with a 63-54 victory over Long Beach State. UCSB receives the conference's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament and will find out who it plays during Monday's selection show.
Santa Barbara continued its typical dominance in March by making an unprecedented run through the tournament, becoming the first No. 6 seed to ever win the title. UCSB (17-15 overall) defeated the No. 7 seed Long Beach State, and is now 5-0 all-time against the 49ers in Big West championship games.
"The Gauchos are back," UCSB's first-year head coach Carlene Mitchell said. "I am so proud of this group, I can't even tell you. I let a smile come out before the final buzzer and there were some tears in the locker room because only these young ladies in our small group know what we've gone through this year. But at the end of the day, this is why you play the game – for March Madness and the opportunity to cut down nets."
The victory was the Gauchos' ninth in its past 11 games as UCSB put the cherry on top of its run with another solid all-around game. Kirsten Tilleman was named the tournament's most valuable player after she led the Gauchos with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Melissa Zornig, who was named to the All-Tournament Team, had 12 points off the bench.
"The MVP? I wasn't expecting that," Tilleman said. "I don't even think about things like that. It's really more of a reflection of my teammates and my coaches because they make it possible for anyone on this team to step up on any given night. It's a great feeling right now."
A sluggish start from both teams might have been expected as the two squads split the regular season series and the winner never cracked the 50-point barrier. UCSB used a 10-0 run early to take a 16-8 lead but Long Beach powered back with a 9-1 run to tie things up. It was back-and-forth the rest of the first half as the Gauchos led, 21-20, at halftime.
UCSB, though, has been a second half team all season and didn't disappoint. The Gauchos shot 51.7% in the second half and jumped to a 30-24 lead on Angelei Aguirre's three-point play with 14:31 to go. The lead swelled to nine, 35-26, on Nicole Nesbit's fastbreak layup and it appeared the Gauchos would cruise to the title.
But Long Beach had one last push in them and sent a scare through UCSB. The 49ers went on a 13-3 run to take a 39-38 lead on Haillie Meneses' three-pointer with 8:36 left. Kelsey Adrian drilled a three-pointer from the top of the arc and Sweets Underwood's layup pushed UCSB's lead back up to four. The Gauchos led the rest of the way, but the 49ers kept it close.
After Underwood's 12-footer made it 57-52 with 1:42 remaining, LBSU's Lauren Spargo drove along the baseline and put up a wild shot. Underwood gathered the rebound and Long Beach head coach Jody Wynn was whistled for a technical when she vehemently argued that Spargo was fouled.
Zornig knocked down both of the technical free throws and UCSB was on its way to The Dance.
UCSB will learn its fate of where it will play in the NCAA Tournament on Monday during the NCAA Selection Show, which airs at 4 p.m. UCSB Athletics will hold a reception to watch the Selection Show in the Intercollegiate Athletics building on campus and it will be open to the public.