Gaucho women change script on Tigers, reach Big West title game

ANAHEIM – With its season on the line, the UC Santa Barbara women’s basketball team played its best game of the year and punched its ticket to the Big West Tournament championship game.

UCSB, the tournament’s sixth seed, blitzed through No. 5 seed Pacific in the semifinals at the Honda Center scoring its most points in an 84-66 victory that helped avenge a 20-point loss to the Tigers a week ago and paid back UOP for knocking the Gauchos out of the tournament a season ago.

Melissa Zornig scored a career-high 23 points while Nicole Nesbit and Emilie Johnson each had 20 in an explosive offensive effort. UCSB shot 54.2% from the floor and outrebounded Pacific, 39-30 to advance to the Big West Tournament title game for the 16th time in its history.

“We came in with a chip on our shoulders,” Nesbit said. “We had to buckle down and play 40 minutes.”

UCSB has won 13 Big West titles and will try to add to that on Saturday in a 2 p.m. game vs. No. 7 seed Long Beach State. UCSB, playing for the ultimate title, is making its 15th championship game appearance in the past 21 seasons and is 4-0 all-time in tourney finales vs. the 49ers.

“I’m extremely proud of this team,” UCSB head coach Carlene Mitchell said. “They’ve been resilient all year long and kept buying in and believing that we would peak and mesh when it really counted. I’m at a loss for words, which is rare for me.”

The Gauchos scored 47 points in the second half against a pressing Pacific team. The Tigers (17-13 overall) got as close as 37-33 early in the second half but UCSB responded with a 20-10 run and held Pacific further than arm’s length the rest of the way.

The Tigers got no closer than nine points the rest of the way, despite shooting 18 second-half free throws.

That’s because UCSB’s defense was stellar and held all-conference players Kendall Rodriguez, Erica McKenzie and Kendall Kenyon in check.

Rodriguez, a First Team All-Big West player, had 12 points on just 3 of 10 shooting and only three rebounds. McKenzie finished with 15 points but needed 16 shots to get there and Kenyon had nine points and nine boards.

Kirsten Tilleman’s defensive presence was a huge reason why UCSB was so effective. The junior limited Rodriguez with tight defense and she pulled in nine rebounds to go with eight points. Sweets Underwood added eight rebounds.

UCSB’s reserves, which included a 4-for-4 game from Angelei Aguirre, shot 22 of 31 from the floor.

Zornig, who hit 9 of 12 shots, came out firing and continued her excellent play near her Coto de Caza hometown. The sophomore, who scored 15 points in Tuesday’s tournament opening round win over UC Irvine, had 12 points at the half and was a huge shot in the arm for the Gauchos.

Nesbit, meanwhile, had 11 second-half points and was 5 of 7 from the field.

Johnson did a lot of her damage late in the game from the free throw line. When Pacific resorted to fouling, it was Johnson who calmly knocked downsix freebies in the final two minutes.

Neither team led by more than five points through most of the first half, and the sixth-seeded Tigers led 15-13 with 8:40 to go in the period. That’s when Nesbit, the conference’s sixth player of the year, and Zornig began to take over as they scored 18 of the Gauchos final 24 points in the period. Included in that stretch was an 11-1 run that turned a tie ball game into a 10-point lead, 32-22.