Fifteen years can be a long time. Just ask UCSB Head Coach Mark French.
But in his decade and half stay at Santa Barbara, French has done more than most could have imagined. Rescuing a program in shambles, he turned the Gauchos into a West Coast powerhouse, earning six Big West Titles and five Big West Coach of the Year awards along the way.
But French and UCSB showed no signs of slowing down this weekend, claiming their seventh straight Big West Title with victories over Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside. The wins also gave French his 300th and 301st career-victories at UCSB (22-5 overall, 16-0 in Big West play), and increased Santa Barbara’s winning streak to 18 games, good for third longest in the country.
“Coach French definitely turned [the program] around,” senior forward Kayte Christensen said. “He’s been able to recruit some really good athletes based on his philosophy that you use basketball to learn about yourself and help you become a better person … He’s a wonderful coach who is more concerned about you as a person than a player.”
For win number 300 the Gauchos put on an all-out assault on the Titans, burying them 80-48 in a game that served as a dress rehearsal for the two teams, which will play again in the opening round of the Big West Tournament. The Gauchos then provided French with an encore performance at Riverside, winning easily 82-59.
“We’re playing some great basketball right now but I don’t know if it’s our best basketball,” Christensen said. “I think we can play better. But it’s tough to judge if we’re playing our best when we haven’t played the toughest competition.”
A mismatch from the start, UCSB jumped all over lowly Fullerton early, racing out to leads of 6-0 and 21-10. As usual, Christensen led the way, scoring the Gauchos’ first four points. Christensen would finish with 19 points and 11 rebounds, recording her 11th double-double of the season, and 26th in her illustrious career.
Freshman guard Mia Fisher helped Santa Barbara maintain its sizable advantage throughout the first half, scoring 13 of her 15 points in the opening frame, at the close of which the Gauchos led 40-23.
Period number two provided UCSB with a serious feeling of DŽjˆ vu, as Christensen exploded out of the gates to score its first 11 points, all within the first four minutes of the half.
The other half of Santa Barbara’s lethal post combination, sophomore center Lindsay Taylor, would take it from there, scoring 15 of her 17 points after intermission. Taylor also broke the single-season blocked shot record of 55, previously held by Kris Grazzina, with block number 56 coming at the 12-minute mark in the half.
“I had no idea that I was one away [from the record],” Taylor said. “I don’t really have any personal goals except to be consistent throughout the season.”
Taylor continued her stellar second-half play Saturday, scoring 13 points in the period to help Santa Barbara pull away from a pesky UCR squad. The Chandler, Ariz. product also recorded two blocks against the Highlanders to increase her single-season record to 58.
Seeking its third unblemished conference record in the last four seasons, the Gauchos came out surprisingly flat against UCR and trailed early 12-7. But rallying behind the play of freshman forward Kristen Mann, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds for her fifth double-double of the season, UCSB calmly took the air out of the Highlanders to take a 34-26 lead into the half.
As is becoming customary, the Gauchos entered the second half looking for the kill, scoring on their first four possessions to extend their lead. A later 15-4 run would give UCSB a comfortable 58-35 advantage, as Santa Barbara did not allow its lead to sink below 16 points for the remainder of the half.
The Gauchos will take the court next on Wednesday night at 6 against CSUF in the first round of the Big West Tournament played at the Anaheim Convention Center. And though UCSB stands as the heavy favorite not only in round one, but in the entire tournament, the Gauchos know better than to look past their conference foes to a possible NCAA Tournament appearance.
“We just need to keep level-minded because everyone tries to bring their best game [against UCSB],” Taylor said. “They have nothing to lose and just want to be UCSB, so we definitely take that into consideration.”