Anaheim, Calif. – The first half battle was close, but it was Cal Poly's hot start to the second half that ended UC Santa Barbara's season. The Gauchos fell to the Mustangs 62-43 in the Semifinals Round of the Big West Tournament in the Honda Center.
UCSB entered the tournament as defending Big West Champs, and they expected nothing less this year than to successfully defend their conference crown.
"We came into this game looking to win," UCSB assistant coach Heather Zurich said after the game. "We were not prepared for our season to end this early."
The Mustangs had the regular season sweep against the Gauchos and in both games they were led by the Big West Player of the Year, Molly Schlemer. And in the conference semifinals, it was Schlemer again who led Cal Poly to victory.
The Mustangs were the number two-seeded team in the Big West, so they had byes through the first two rounds of the tournament. And Cal Poly seemed to put that extra rest to good use, as Schlemer, who averaged 21 minutes per game in the regular season, played 36 minutes against the Gauchos in the semifinals.
The 6'5'' center scored a game-high 26 points, going 10-23 from the field and 6-7 from the free-throw line.
Nicole Nesbit led the Gauchos with 11 points, all coming from the second half. Nesbit turned her offensive game around with 11:28 left in the game when UCSB was trying to overcome a 37-23 Mustang lead.
To start the game, the Gauchos showed that they were ready to attack early and often behind the play of senior Angelei Aguirre.
With both teams still scoreless, Aguirre stole the ball away from Ariana Elegado and ran with it for three-quarters of the floor to finish with a layup on the other end.
"I tried to be aggressive and take open shots," Aguirre said. "We all knew that we had to be aggressors at the beginning."
The rest of the Gauchos showed that they were following the senior's lead. To protect her team's early lead, Sweets Underwood threw down a block, denying Molly Schlemer a basket, and made the tough defensive rebound. The ball was eventually put up the floor to find Aguirre who capitalized on the opportunity and connected on a jumper for two.
By the 15:40 mark in the first half, UCSB was up 4-0 and held Cal Poly to a 0-8 shooting performance from the field.
When the halftime buzzer sounded, Cal Poly had found some rhythm on offense and went into the locker room with the 22-19 lead.
After the break, Cal Poly wasted no time in scoring points and went on a 13-2 run to start second half play. The stretch ended when Jackie Luna-Castro put a shot off the glass to move the score to 35-23. By that point, though, Cal Poly had enough control to win the game.
For UCSB's three seniors (Angelie Aguirre, Kirsten Tilleman, and Sweets Underwood), the loss will be the last game of their Gaucho careers. Those seniors all played vital roles in UCSB's championship run last season.
But during the post game press conference, Tilleman made a point regarding the seniors' careers as Gauchos.
"It was not about this one game," Tilleman said. "It was about the journey that we had with these players and these coaches."
To which Aguirre agreed, "Dido."