It’s rare that in sports, or life for that matter, that you get a second chance.
Despite failing to solidify a spot in the NCAA Tournament, the UCSB women’s basketball team will get a second chance at the postseason tomorrow when it begins first round play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
The Gauchos, which currently stand at 16-16 overall after going 11-7 in Big West play, earned an at large bid to the Tournament and will participate in March Madness when the team travels to San Diego State tonight. The Aztecs, meanwhile, enter playoffs at 26-6.
“Not every team in the country gets the chance to go into the postseason, so I think we’re excited and thankful to have another chance,” senior guard Angelei Aguirre said. “I think we need to go in with the mentality to be aggressive. We have nothing to lose.”
Santa Barbara’s last game resulted in a devastating 62-43 loss to rival Cal Poly in the semifinals of the Big West Tournament. Although UCSB got off to a fantastic start, holding the Mustangs to 0-8 shooting to begin the game, the Gauchos struggled to score the basketball, shooting just 34.7 percent from the field.
Add to that a 20-point second half from Cal Poly’s 6’5’’ junior center Molly Schlemer and UCSB began to watch its season potentially come to an end. However, three days later, the Gauchos became of one of four Big West teams selected for the WNIT. This marks the second straight postseason appearance in Mitchell’s two-year reign.
“It’ll help us to have a little edge because we’re still upset about that [game] and we don’t like how that game potentially could’ve ended our season,” junior guard Nicole Nesbit said. “I think that’s going to put some fuel to our fire and if anything, it’s going to motivate us for this game coming up tomorrow.”
San Diego State will also enter tomorrow’s matchup looking for redemption. The Aztecs had a spectacular season, posting a 15-1 Mountain West record to win the regular season title for the second straight year. The team also won 17 consecutive games and tied the program record for most wins in a single season. As a result of winning its conference, SDSU earned an automatic bid to the WNIT, but fell short of going to the NCAA Tournament when it lost to Fresno State in the Mountain West Tournament Championship.
“It’s obvious that they’re extremely athletic and I’m sure they feel like they should be in the NCAA Tournament with the record that they have,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “I’m sure they’ll come out and we’ll probably see one of their best games.”
Overall, the Gauchos are 12-18 against San Diego State. However, the last time these two teams faced off was Jan. 2, 1999 and UCSB won 78-50.
Dominating the conference, the Aztecs rank first in the Mountain West in scoring defense, holding teams to 52.4 points per game. However, San Diego St. is an offensive minded team, averaging 68.7 points per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field.
Leading the charge for SDSU is senior guard Courtney Clements, who ranks second in the Mountain West and first on the team in scoring with 17.5 points per game. In addition, senior guard Chelsea Hopkins, a transfer from Duke, averages 13.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists per contest.
“Hopkins likes to get in the paint,” Mitchell said. “She can knock down a three, but she wants to get in the gaps and make things happen. And with Clements, you have to contest the shot. You can’t foul her or give her open looks from three. You want to try and make her put it on the floor and make her a jump shooter.”
Of course, SDSU will be facing the toughest defensive team in the Big West as UCSB holds teams to a conference leading 52.4 points per game and 35.8 shooting from the field.
“Defense is our identity, so like always for us, we have to play defense and get stops,” Aguirre said.
The final step in defense is rebounding and Santa Barbara ranks first in the Big West in rebounding defense, holding its opponents to 32.5 boards per game, which will be especially important against the Aztecs, which typically grab 41 rebounds per game. In addition, if UCSB can keep SDSU off the boards, they will likely be able to shut down 6’6’’ senior center Malia Nahinu, who averages nearly eight points per game off of rebound putbacks.
“Watching film of them, Fresno State didn’t have anyone at [Nahinu’s] size and they were able to push her away from the basket,” Mitchell said. “She’ll get a lot of points if you don’t block her out on rebound putbacks, but she’s a different type of player than Schlemer. And we’ve seen 6-6 throughout the year.”
Offensively for the Gauchos, senior forward Sweets Underwood leads the team, averaging 11.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. She also shoots 48.3 percent from the field. In the backcourt, Nesbit paces the team, averaging 10.8 points per game.
As a team, UCSB shoots 40.2 percent from the field, but struggled to make easy shots against Cal Poly. However, the Gauchos are best when they can get out, run and make some easy baskets in transition.
“We need to make them have to work in transition defense and we’ve seen from day one that most of the time our easy baskets come in transition if we have an attack mentality,” Mitchell said. “That will be the main thing and then you have to knock down shots. At some point, if you have 12 and 15 foot jumpers, you have to be willing and confident enough to step up and knock them down.”
The WNIT Tournament is composed of 64 Division I teams and is single elimination. The first round begins tomorrow and will conclude Friday.
Tipoff against San Diego State is set for 4 p.m. at Viejas Arena.
This article is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of the Daily Nexus.