Cutting through the backslapping and cliches that permeated a teleconference to advance today’s openers at the Big West Conference women’s basketball tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center was a single thought.
“Nobody is going to beat Santa Barbara,” Idaho Coach Mark Divilbiss said. “That’s the truth.”
That grim assessment is nothing new. Santa Barbara (23-4) is ranked 17th by Associated Press and is top-seeded in the tournament for the eighth consecutive time. Its 15-1 conference record put it four games ahead of second-place Pacific. The Gauchos have won 18 consecutive tournament games and the last six tournament titles -- and they take a five-game winning streak into today’s first-round game with Cal State Fullerton (7-20) at 6 p.m.
It’s the third consecutive season that Santa Barbara has opened against Fullerton and that’s not what third-year Titan Coach Barbara Ehardt, a former Gaucho assistant, wanted. Santa Barbara beat Fullerton a week ago, 94-52.
“The task is large and looming,” Ehardt said. “Santa Barbara has great chemistry and seems to be clicking so well together.”
Fullerton beat Santa Barbara in the tournament semifinals in 1995, 97-86, but that was when Mark French, Santa Barbara’s seven-time conference coach of the year, was just getting started. In the last seven years, the Gauchos have a 101-5 record against Big West opponents. Most agree that French has his best team yet.
Even if Santa Barbara stumbles it is expected to receive an NCAA tournament bid. French doesn’t want to leave anything to chance, however, even though the field includes five sub-.500 teams.
“The more we can take care of business and not leave it up to a committee would be very much to our favor,” he said. “The national rankings are kind of glitzy and glamorous and we all feature them in our recruiting letters all the time but RPI is a lot more important to the women’s selection committee.”
Pacific (14-13), which brings a seven-game winning streak into today’s 2:30 p.m. opener with UC Riverside (8-19), tagged Santa Barbara with its conference loss, 74-65, Jan. 18 in Stockton.
“In some ways [the loss to Pacific] is something that lurks in the backs of our players’ minds,” French said. “I actually think it has been good for us since that game.”
The Gauchos closed out the conference season with 11 consecutive victories, one a 66-37 thumping of visiting Pacific on Feb. 5. Their only other loss in the last two months was a 94-90 nonconference defeat in triple overtime at Louisiana State on Feb. 15.
In other games, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (10-16) plays Long Beach State (13-14) at noon, and UC Irvine (16-11) plays Idaho (10-17) at 8:30 p.m.
The Big West women’s tournament will be played at the Anaheim Convention Center:
* No. 3 Long Beach State vs. No. 6 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, noon
* No. 2 Pacific vs. No. 7 UC Riverside, 2:30 p.m.
* No. 1 UC Santa Barbara vs. No. 8 Cal State Fullerton, 6 p.m.
* No. 4 UC Irvine vs. No. 5 Idaho, 8:30 p.m.
* Semifinals, noon and 2:30 (highest-seeded remaining team will play its opponent in the noon game).
* Championship, 2:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net 2. Winner gets automatic berth to NCAA tournament.