Big West women’s basketball tourney turns 30

In 1995, UC Irvine was finally represented in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The women’s basketball team, under the direction of head coach Colleen Matsuhara, defeated Pacific with a 65-53 effort the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

It was a historic win for the Anteaters, but what Matsuhara remembers the most is what happened later that night.

“I think I got pretty lucky at the casino that night,” Matsuhara said. “I was at the MGM (Grand), I remember it was a quarter machine.”

This year, the Big West Conference will be celebrating three decades worth of memories like Matsuhara’s, as the women’s basketball tournament turns 30.

In 30 years, Big West women’s basketball has gone from a low-key event at campus sites to a tournament with a big-game atmosphere at the Honda Center in Anaheim. National powers, intense rivalries and record-setting performances have highlighted the tournament’s run.

In 1983, the Pacific Coast Athletic Association became the first West Coast conference to introduce the competition of women’s sports to its members. Women’s basketball in the PCAA, later renamed the Big West Conference in 1988, immediately became a national power in the sport with the emergence of UNLV and Long Beach State.

The Rebels, former Big West Conference members from 1982-1986 won the first three titles. But charter member Long Beach State featured some of the best teams in the country during a remarkable stretch in the 1980s. Under the helm of Joan Bonvicini, the 49ers made 10 straight NCAA Tournaments, including back-to-back Final Four appearances in 1988 and 1987.

From 1986-1991, Bonvicini guided the 49ers to four Big West Championships, including three straight from 1987-1989, and two runner-up finishes.

“We were unbelievable,” Bonvicini said. “I was really fortunate, I had some really good teams.”

Bonvicini had some of the sport’s most historic teams. The dominant stretch in the ‘80s included the likes Penny Toler, LaTaunya Pollard and Cindy Brown, who are still Long Beach’s three all-time leading scorers.

Toler, a point guard, is still considered to be one of the best to have ever played collegiately. An All-American who still holds numerous Long Beach State records, Toler went on to become the first player to score a field and a free throw in the WNBA. Toler is now the General Manager of the Los Angeles Sparks and has assembled two championship teams.

Pollard, a women’s basketball hall-of-famer, was named an All-American three times while at Long Beach, and also won the Wade Trophy and played for the 1980 Olympic Team.

Brown remains The Beach’s all-time leading score and her name is inked all over the Long Beach and Big West record books.

Bonvicini’s teams were always so strong that others would accuse her of trying to run up the score in conference games.

“But that was never the goal. It was never about that, it was always about doing our best,” Bonvicini said. “Our RPI was always so high it was not a question if we were going to go. For some of the other teams, they had to win the tournament in order to go. But for us, it was a step so that we could get ourselves ready to make a deep run in the NCAAs.”

Bonvicini went on to coach at Arizona for 17 seasons. She led the Wildcats to an WNIT Championship and became one of just 18 coaches in NCAA women’s basketball history with more than 600 wins. Yet she still looks back on her time at The Beach fondly, as her years there were some of the best of her career.

“It was good basketball and we had some great coaches and there were some really good teams,” Bonvivini said. “I just feel like I’ve been very fortunate as a coach and as a person to have the opportunity to coach those kids and coach at Long Beach State. I loved coaching at that school and I loved coaching those kids.”

Following Bonvicini’s departure in the early 1990s, the Big West became a wide open league. Hawaii, whose women’s teams competed in the Big West from 1984-1996, was the runner-up twice, falling to UC Santa Barbara and UNLV in 1993 and 1994.

A year ahead of schedule, UC Irvine had its time to shine in 1995.

“It was just one of those things where all of the stars and the moon aligned and we were able to win the championship game,” Matsuhara said. “It was my first recruiting class, they were only juniors. That was our four-year plan. It was a great surprise that they matured and delivered a championship a year earlier than realistically, what we had felt.”

Post player Allah-mi Bahseer was named to the All-Tournament team and was named tournament MVP. A year later, she was named an All-American, one just two Anteaters to have ever earned the honor.

Basheer and Matsuhara have maintained a close relationship over the years, as Matsuhara is the godmother of Basheer’s son. Now the head coach at West Los Angeles College, Matsuhara feels that those relationships are what makes collegiate sports such a unique experience.

“He says, ‘my mom said she used to be pretty good.’ I tell him, ‘You’re mom was a heck of a player,’” Matsuhara said. “There are things that are valuable and more important off the court.”

The 1995 NCAA Tournament was the only appearance for the Anteaters – the men or the women – in program history. It’s a fact that Matsuhara still takes immense pride in.

“It’s always been very special. I keep up with the scores and when they don’t go very far in the tournament I go, ‘Wow, we’re still the only team that’s ever made the Big Dance at the school.’”

Following the Anteaters’ championship, Hawaii won its first one under head coach Vince Goo. It was the Rainbow Wahine’s final season in the Big West, as they joined the rest of the Hawaii teams in the WAC the following season.

Five different teams had won the Big West in a span of six seasons, but UCSB put an end to that. In what was arguably one of the most dominating stretches in the NCAA, the Gauchos won nine straight championships. The unprecedented streak turned the Gauchos into Central Coast heroes and former head coach Mark French, a UCSB alum, into a local legend.

The Gauchos dominated in a way that few do. French turned the team into a national power. Some years, Santa Barbara was considered to be on par with Pac-12 programs Stanford and USC. His teams have been described as a likeable group who always played with high levels of intensity, physicality and effort. Much like other coaches, he emphasized life off the court as well, giving his teams a well-rounded feel.

“Our women started to get to a point where that was expected.  No matter what happened during the regular season, we expected to go wherever it is we were going to go – Reno, Long Beach Arena, Anaheim – we expected to win.  That great tradition that Long Beach and UNLV had when I first came into the Big West was hard to overcome.  They had a certain swagger about them, they had a certain expectation of their players and their fans that they were going to go and win the Big West Tournament.  I think that was very helpful to us.  The Gauchos winning that on a regular basis, it was great fun for our program, it was great national visibility because we were fortunate to go on and win some NCAA Tournament games.”

Known as Big Daddy to his players, French groomed 12 1,000-point scorers in his tenure and several players went on to play in the WBNA and professionally overseas.

However, in 2006 the Gauchos were finally upset in the Big West Tournament. Going into the championship game with the No. 1 seed against fourth-seeded UC Riverside, the Gauchos were a favorite to win a tenth-straight Big West title.

But Kemie Nkele and the Highlanders had other plans. UC Riverside stunned the Gauchos, edging them out by just one point for a 59-58 win, its first-ever championship victory.

Just 3-6 going into Big West play that season, head coach John Margaritis didn’t think a championship win was possible after Cal Poly blew out the Highlanders by 34 points in the conference-opener. But then something clicked with his team the Highlanders carried a six-game winning streak into the Big West Tournament. It was enough to power Riverside past the vaunted Gauchos.

“That team just got better and better as the season went on,” Margaritis said. “It was the first time for our school in the history of women’s basketball that we got to go to the NCAA Tournament. I was very proud to be a part of that group.”

Even more impressive was when the Highlanders repeated the feat a year later in the 2007 tournament.

Long Beach State was enduring a tough, rebuilding season but the young 49ers made it all the way to the semi-finals winning a few close games. But then the Highlanders were the ones who pulled out a close one to move on to the finals. Riverside again beat Santa Barbara in another thriller, 70-67.

Nkele was named back-to-back Big West Tournament MVP and hit a game-winner over her former high school teammate, who was playing for the Gauchos.

“Kemie was the heart and soul of our team,” Margaritis said. “She was very special.”

The reign of UCSB and UCR continued until 2011 when UC Davis won its first championship as a member of the Big West Conference. It was the first time in 15 years that a team other than the Gauchos or Highlanders had held the trophy.

This season, the usual suspects are back at the top along with Pacific and Hawaii. Pacific, a charter member of the Big West, has never won the conference tournament and could be primed for a breakout performance in what is to be its last stand in the Big West. Hawaii may establish itself as a new power player in the conference.

Cal State Fullerton, with the tragic passing of assistant coach Monica Quan, is also set to write a new, albeit emotional, chapter in their Big West Tournament book, honoring the slain coach with its play.

Big West women’s basketball has seen 30 years of dominance, upsets, and memories that come along with cutting down the nets. This week, a new one will be written, looking toward another 30 years.