ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP)—Long Beach State’s women’s basketball team overachieved with a young starting lineup that made it all the way to the Big West championship game.
Then, the 49ers ran into UC Santa Barbara.
Alex Sanchez scored 17 points and Devin Hudson had 15 points and 14 rebounds for the seventh-seeded 49ers, but it wasn’t enough as the sixth-seeded Gauchos hung on 63-54 in Saturday to win the tournament for the 12th time in 16 years.
“Yeah, we’re a young team and we’re freshmen, but we’ve played enough games for us not to be called freshmen,” Sanchez said. “We’ve been through many situations throughout our games and in practices. But we’ve learned a lot. … This was a great experience for us, so we will use it and learn from it, learn how much it hurt, and get better each year. We’ll be back.”
The 49ers (14-18) were playing in their 11th Big West Conference championship game and first since 2001 following Friday’s 51-48 semifinal upset of No. 1 seed Cal Poly.
“This team has been through quite a bit,” coach Jody Wynn said of her team that starts three freshmen. “We were picked to finish in ninth place out of nine teams, with not one kid returning with any kind of accolades or honorable mention, or anything that sniffs of that. A lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries—and one senior.
“As a coaching staff, we’re just extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
It was only second time in the history of the Big West women’s tournament that none of the top-five seeds played for the title, and the first time a No. 6 seed won it all.
Kirsten Tilleman scored 10 of her 16 points in the second half and grabbed 11 rebounds for UCSB (17-15). Melissa Zoring had 14 points and Sweets Underwood added 11, including a clinching 3-pointer with 47 seconds remaining.
Senior forward Tipesa Moorer, the 49ers’ leading scorer this season and the niece of former heavyweight champion Michael Moorer, played 13 scoreless minutes in her final college game after getting into early foul trouble—leaving Hudson with more responsibility at both ends of the floor.
“Tipesa’s been my personal role model since Day 1,” Hudson said. “Playing the post at the beginning was really hard, because a lot of my shots weren’t falling. Tillman’s good, and she can guard. So it was just a matter of go hard or go home.”
The Gauchos will go to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 under Carlene Mitchell, whose first season as a division I head coach has been quite satisfying.
“The Gauchos are back. I am so proud of this group, I can’t even tell you,” said Mitchell who spent the previous 10 years as an assistant at Rutgers under C. Vivian Stringer. “There were a few tears in the locker room, because only these young ladies understand what we’ve gone through this year. But this is why you play the game—for March Madness and a chance to cut down nets.
“As my boss indicated when he called me to see my interest in this job, it was: Could I handle cutting down nets? Hopefully I answered that question for you.”
The 49ers attempted only two shots in the first 6 1/2 minutes of the second half, but managed to remain within striking distance after UCSB pulled ahead 35-26 on a 3-pointer by Zornig and a fast-break layup by Nicole Nesbit with 11:45 remaining.
Sanchez responded with a layup and a 3-pointer 30 seconds apart, then Lauren Spargo converted a three-point play and Hallie Meneses hit a 3-pointer with 8:36 left to give the 49ers a 39-38 lead.
Kelsey Adrian drained a 3-pointer to put UCSB ahead for good, 43-41, with 7:21 to play.
Underwood’s 3 gave the Gauchos a 57-52 margin, and they made six of eight free throws to seal the victory. Tilleman was named the tournament’s MVP.
“I wasn’t expecting that. I wasn’t even thinking about awards like that, but it’s a great feeling” the 6-1 junior said. “It’s really just a reflection of my teammates. They make it possible for anyone on this team to step up on any given night.
The Gauchos led 21-20 at halftime despite 11 turnovers, and the fact that their backcourt duo of Nesbit and Emile Johnson were a combined 0 for 9 from the field. Johnson, the team’s leading scorer this season, played 26 scoreless minutes.
“There’s nothing more that I wanted than to see my teammates cut down nets and just to enjoy this moment with this team,” Johnson said. “This is just a testament to never giving up and persevering. The hard times that we went through this year, I wouldn’t trade it for this moment right now.
“This team is really special and we’re going to leave our legacy. People are going to talk about this team for any years.”
Nesbit, the conference’s player of the year, finished with six points on 2-for-10 shooting after scoring a career-high 20 against Pacific in Friday’s semifinal game.
The same schools were slated to meet for the men’s championship. It’s the second time in tournament history the same schools had the finalists in both the men’s and women’s brackets. It also happened in 1990, with Long Beach State and UNLV.
“It’s everything I expected when I took this job,” Mitchell said. “Like I told them, it would have been easy for them to jump ship with a new coach and a change in philosophy. But the seniors led the way. They wanted to leave their legacy, which was a Big West championship. So I can only thank them for believing in me.”