Kirsten Tilleman

AP

UC-Santa Barbara forward Kirsten Tilleman, right, hugs head coach Carlene Mitchell at the end of the Big West Conference championship game.

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For the past week, Kirsten Tilleman hasn’t been able to talk about much else. Rightfully so, as her UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos will be on women’s college basketball’s biggest stage today.

The Bozeman native is a junior post for a Gauchos team fresh off a Big West tournament title. UCSB’s reward for earning the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid is a date with top-ranked and undefeated Baylor. And Tilleman, the 2006-2007 Montana Gatorade Player of the Year in both basketball and soccer as a senior at Bozeman High, gets the tall task of guarding the most revolutionary women’s hoopster since Cheryl Miller.

The 6-foot-1 Tilleman was second in the Big West this season with 8.2 rebounds per game, but the workhorse of the Gauchos’ front line will have a whole new experience on her hands this afternoon. The intimidating presence of 6-foot-8 junior center Brittney Griner awaits in the lane in Bowling Green, Ohio this afternoon. Tipoff is at 12:30 p.m. MST.

Trying to slow down the sure-fire Naismith Award winner — with her 24 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks per game stat line — could dishearten anyone. But Tilleman is relishing the opportunity with open arms.

“It’s a really neat position to be in because no one expects anything from us and we have nothing to lose,” said Tilleman, whose Gauchos carry a 17-15 record entering the tournament. “At the same time, I think we really have a shot at making this a close game. Our coaches have watched a lot of film and they have a unique game plan for us. We are sticking to what we’ve done all season, but we are making small adjustments. You can’t ignore a 6-foot-8 girl with an even bigger wingspan. For the most part, we just have to stay within ourselves and keep doing what’s got us to this point.”

For the past week, UCSB head coach Carlene Mitchell and her staff has had Tilleman and her teammates practice against a group of men that includes a 7-foot-2 practice player. Still, it’s a challenge to prepare mentally to play one of the best post players the women’s game has ever seen.

“During the selection show, one of the announcers called (Griner) the best female center in the world. I would agree with that,” Tilleman said. “I’m ready for the challenge. I’ve heard the David and Goliath reference thrown around a lot and I think it’s one of those situations, literally and figuratively.”

Baylor is six wins away from the school’s second national title and, if the school can claim the ultimate prize, the Bears could become the first team in major college basketball history to win 40 games in a single season.

“People’s reaction generally fall into three categories when I talk to them about playing Baylor,” Tilleman said. “People either say ‘I’m sorry’, or ‘oh, well, good luck,’ or they say ‘oh wow, that’s really cool.’ We are taking the third approach. That’s everyone’s mindset because we are going to play a good team no matter what in the tournament. We just happened to have to play the best team.”

The 16-seed Gauchos are one of the surprises of the tournament field. UCSB went 8-8 in Big West and, as of Feb. 9, hadn’t won more than two consecutive games all season. Then the team caught fire, winning nine of its last 11 and rolling through the Big West tournament en rout to earning an invite to the Big Dance.

The key to the Gauchos’ run has been a staunch defense that allowed just 52.7 points per game, the best in the Big West.

“We need to stay strong defensively and make the possession count lower so teams have to play defense on us,” Tilleman said. “We have to make teams work for everything.”

The NCAA Tournament run is a change of pace for Tilleman after experiencing uncertainty when it came to her athletic career. After earning 12 letters at Bozeman High and being named first-team All-State in basketball, track and field and soccer as a prep senior, Tilleman took her talents to Corvallis, Oregon to play for Oregon State. Two years later, Tilleman already had her bachelor’s degree in hand and change was on the horizon at OSU. So the All-Academic Pac 10 scholar decided to transfer to pursue a master’s degree in environmental science and management. She’s a junior eligibility-wise on the hardwood, but a first-year grad student in the classroom.

When it became apparent that a transfer was in her best interest, Tilleman nearly let her heart lead her back to the Treasure State.

“I was really close to going to Missoula to play for the (Montana) Lady Griz, but I decided I needed to continue expanding myself outside of Montana,” Tilleman said. “I love Montana so much, so I probably would never leave if I went back there for my master’s.”

Tilleman said she misses the distinct seasons of Montana and Oregon, but that Santa Barbara is a perfect fit for her at this time in her life. Today, Tilleman is set to have an experience her and her teammates are not soon to forget.

“Everyone looks at the NCAA Tournament for basketball and it’s everyone’s main dream,” Tilleman said. “During the conference tournament, that got us a taste. Honestly, it never felt like we weren’t going to win the conference tournament and now we are here. It feels surreal that we get to play Baylor and I get to guard Brittney Griner. But we believe in ourselves and we know this is an experience we won’t ever forget.”

Colter Nuanez can be reached at 582-2690 or at cnuanez@dailychronicle.com.

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