March 13, 2012

UCSB toughs its way into Tourney

By EDDIE HARBOUR, NEWS-PRESS SPORTS EDITOR

EDDIE HARBOUR


UCSB coach Carlene Mitchell speaks to the crowd at Monday's viewing party while standing next to the Big West championship trophy.
NIK BLASKOVICH/NEWS-PRESS

March 13, 2012 3:46 AM

 

The journey to sports success isn't always marked with walk-off home runs and buzzer-beaters.

Oftentimes, it's the accumulation of the unremarkable, the offensive rebound in a late-season contest that spurs a run and a win on the road or a one-and-one that kept a lead at double digits and an opponent at bay.

Such was the path the UCSB women's basketball team took to the Big West Tournament title and a forthcoming trip to the NCAA Tournament this season.

And while the Gauchos (17-15) drew the overall top seed in Baylor — and with it 6-foot-8 powerhouse Brittney Griner — they appear ready to enjoy every step they take from here on out.

On Monday, at Reitnouer Auditorium on the campus, three-quarters of the bracket was revealed before UCSB learned its fate. The Gauchos, who appeared anything but tense, playfully waved at ESPN's video of Baylor at its own viewing party once it became apparent the two teams would be squaring off.

They erupted in delight at finally seeing UC Santa Barbara appear on the bracket, opposite the 34-0 Bears, for a game on Sunday in Bowling Green, Ohio.

"I can't lie, I had some chills," UCSB coach Carlene Mitchell said. "To know that this is my group and to know how we started to how we ended, to see this team smile meant the world to me."

For senior Emilie Johnson it will be the perfect bookend to her career at UCSB.

"This is an exciting time of year," Johnson said. "We love March and we're just going to embrace this opportunity.

"I'm just thrilled to be in this situation. I came in as a freshman and went to the NCAAs and now I'm going out as a senior and going to the NCAAs.

"I couldn't have written it any better."

The task at hand — producing one of the great upsets in tournament history — is of course, daunting. But Mitchell's club has been climbing uphill since Day One. With that experience, however, the Gauchos can shed their shortcomings and bring game to their level.

This is a team unafraid to dive for loose balls, to tussle in the paint, to give and take an elbow. Final scores, stat sheets — all of that becomes unimportant once blood and sweat begin to mix on the hardwood. Outmatched in height? No bother, just box out more effectively. Quicker guards? Just hit the decks with more regularity.

"We have to play to our strengths," Mitchell said. "And the team bought into the fact that to win games we had to make it ugly, to limit possessions.

"By the end, the ball was going through the hoop for us. When it counted for us, it clicked."

All of that was on full display last week when the Gauchos rattled off three wins and came home with the Big West tourney trophy, a souvenir net and an extension to their season. The trophy — with the net draped over it like a halo — sat stage-left of the screen as the team watched the bracket unfold amongst friends, fans and UCSB staff.

"I think back and go, 'Oh, that really happened this weekend ... this is awesome," Gaucho Kirsten Tilleman said. "I go back and forth between realizing that it happened, thinking about other things and then realizing it happened and getting that smile on my face."

With the Bears looming this weekend, Mitchell's team will get right back to work this week before it leaves for Ohio. Those smiles Tilleman and her teammates have plastered across their face won't last long. Once they get on the court at the cozy Stroh Center this weekend, the Gauchos will be all business.

"There's a toughness, an edge to us," Johnson said. "We're battle tested and that showed this Saturday when we cut down the nets."

And they'll get at least one more opportunity to put it all on display.

Eddie Harbour is the News-Press sports editor. His column appears on Tuesday. Email: eharbour@newspress.com