The UCSB women’s basketball team is the reigning Big West Champion, but it’s not thinking about that.
The Gauchos were also predicted to finish third in conference this year by the Big West preseason media poll, receiving three first-place votes, but they’re not thinking about that either.
All that’s on the mind of Santa Barbara is getting to the Big West championship again, winning and returning to the NCAA tournament.
“We push [the past and the polls] to the side because it doesn’t matter what other people think. At the end of the day, it’s about us, what we know and our expectations for the season,” senior forward Sweets Underwood said. “Obviously, [our goal is to] win Big West and go the NCAA tournament. We can’t expect anything less seeing that we did that last season.”
Last year, UCSB made it all the way to the Big Dance in a Cinderella story-like fashion, winning nine of its final 11 games to win the Big West Championship. This year, the Gauchos return nine players, including three of last year’s starters.
“I think our biggest strength is our chemistry,” junior guard Nicole Nesbit said. “We have most of the same girls that have played in those big games and have lived those big moments.”
Currently, UCSB holds a 5-10 overall record and is 1-2 in the Big West.
The Gauchos began conference on the road, facing UC Irvine and Long Beach State. Against Irvine, Santa Barbara jumped out to an early 11-3 lead and was able to hold on, winning 51-46. However, in a rematch of last year’s Big West final, UCSB made critical mistakes late in the game and fell to Long Beach 52-45.
“Of course we were hoping to come off a road [trip] 2-0, but that obviously didn’t go our way,” Underwood said. “We have to learn from it. There are a lot of great teams in the Big West this season.”
In Santa Barbara’s first home conference game against Pacific last night, UCSB lost its second consecutive Big West game, falling 64-52. The Gauchos struggled on both ends of the floor, allowing the Tigers 64 points, including 32 in the paint, while failing to handle Pacific’s press on the offensive end. UCSB turned the ball over 17 times.
“Of course it’s disappointing to lose, but this team’s okay,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “I know that when I walk into the locker room, you know that in their eyes and I told them to play my broken record from last year because that borken record record will be that we’ll be there when it counts. I believe that.”
While the Gauchos’ 5-9 record may not look all that impressive, UCSB played quality competition during the preseason such as Oregon State, USC, No. 6 Kentucky and Kansas State, which should ready the team for conference. Against Kentucky, UCSB held the Wildcats to 28 first half points and entered halftime down just eight.
“I think we got out of the preseason what we were looking for,” Mitchell said. “We played high level competition, so we’ve seen every style, we’ve seen top 10 programs, we’ve seen size, physicality and tough defenses.”
As a result of hosting tough teams, UCSB has gone 1-5 on its home court and has lost its last five games in the Thunderdome. The last time the Gauchos lost five straight at home was during the 1986-87 season.
“Coach Mitch always says protect your home court because it’s like someone coming into your house,” Nesbit said. “You don’t want to get robbed, so I think that when we come out on this court, we need to play with pride.”
To win back to back Big West championships, Santa Barbara will rely on its incredible defense. The Gauchos rank first in the Big West in scoring defense for the second consecutive season, allowing opponents 55.4 points per game.
“At the end of the day, you can always score points, but you have to get stops on the defensive end,” Underwood said.
On a team in which no individual ranks in the top 10 in scoring in the Big West, another asset for UCSB is its balance as any player can step up on any night.
“We have so much talent,” Underwood said. “Everyone’s capable of scoring for us, everyone’s capable of rebounding for us and everyone’s capable of dishing out assists every night. We have no super stars on this team.”
UCSB’s most consistent player this season has been Underwood, who nearly averages a double-double with 11.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, and has earned Big West Play of the Week twice. Her 8.9 rebounds and 51.2 percent field goal percentage rank third and second in the Big West, respectively.
“We tell our kids that you’re always going to play like you practice and as a senior, she understands that,” Mitchell said. “She’s playing a sense of urgency, so everyday in practice is what you see in a game.”
Taking over the point guard spot, Nesbit has become the team’s floor general, dishing out a team-leading 2.7 assists per game. A Big West Honorable Mention selection last season, she is also the team’s second leading scorer with 9.8 points per game.
“[Nesbit] makes the big plays and she has the ball in her hands a lot when the shot clock’s running down,” Mitchell said. “But, also she’s become a more vocal leader.”
Two of the Gauchos’ most prominent leaders this season have been seniors Angelei Aguirre and Kirsten Tilleman. Aguirre will be key for UCSB as she is known for defense and versatility. While not known for her offense, socring 5.4 points per game, she has proved this season that she can step up and put the team on her back offensively. Against USC, Aguirre took control in the second half, tallying 11 of the team’s 31 second half points while playing the point guard.
Tilleman, last year’s Big West Tournament MVP, currently ranks ninth in the conference in rebounding at 6.5 points per game.
“[Tilleman] brings her work ethic,” Mitchell said. “She’s willing to sacrifice her own credit and accolades to do whatever our team needs for us to win. She’s been very consistent in her style of play.”
UCSB has all the pieces offensively, but the Gauchos are not going to win basketball games by trying to outscore its opponents. The team ranks last in scoring offense at 50.0 points per game, five points less than the ninth place team.
However, Santa Barbara leads the league in free throw percentage, shooting 75.3 percent from the free throw line. Nesbit shoots an incredible 89.4 percent from the charity stripe, which is second in conference and 13th nationally.
While free throw shooting will be critical late in games in a very competitive league, UCSB needs to get to the line more as it has shot a league low 158 free throw shots.
“Offensively, we keep trying to have more of an attack mentality,” Nesbit said. “Coach Mitch keeps preaching to us to get to the free throw line. I think for us, it’s going to be about developing that attack mentality because we have the players.”
UCSB next faces UC Davis on Saturday. Tip-off at the Thunderdome is scheduled for 2 p.m.
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of January 11th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.