The two most common phrases from a head coach at the beginning of a season have to be, “It’s a new year” and “It’s a new team.”
While this cliché may be completely overused, it couldn’t be truer for the UCSB women’s basketball team right now.
Beginning the 2013-14 season Monday in an exhibition game against Vanguard, the Gauchos will look very unfamiliar, returning just five players from last year’s roster.
In addition, after losing its entire starting frontline to graduation, Santa Barbara will feature a much smaller lineup this year, with only two forwards and one center on the roster.
If any players will look familiar, it will be the guards as UCSB’s trio of seniors will be the leaders of this year’s team.
“It’s going to be obvious with anyone we play we’re going to be undersized,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “But we have an experienced group of guards and they’ve worked extremely hard and it’s their third year in our system.”
With a new team comes a new style of play, especially on the offensive end. While the Gauchos finished last in the Big West in scoring offense last season at 51.3 points per game, a fast-paced, run-and-gun offense will complement the smaller lineup and the Gauchos will try to spread the floor with guards that can score in a variety of ways.
“I’ll make the adjustment that we’ll have to get up and down,” Mitchell said. “I think in the past, it was in our benefit to find ways to grind it out, but with this team we’re going to have to keep it pretty simple and spread people out because we have to take advantage of our strengths, which is quickness.”
However, one thing that won’t change under Mitchell’s control is the focus on defense. The coach that has led Santa Barbara to the postseason in her first two years at UCSB will look to up the defensive intensity, implementing a high-pressure press.
Last season, the Gauchos topped the conference and ranked 20th in the nation in points allowed per game at 52.9 and opponent field goal percentage at 36.2 percent.
“We know we have to press a lot more,” Mitchell said. “I think it’ll be to our benefit to speed people up and get easy baskets. Hopefully, we’ll get teams into some shot clock issues with our [press]. Now, we can get more aggressive on the ball and in the passing lanes.”
UCSB was picked to finish fifth in the Big West Preseason Poll behind Cal Poly, Hawaii, Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State.
“I think we have the chance to be a very good team and hopefully that will be sooner rather than later,” Mitchell said. “Northridge tended to play that same style: quick, small and athletic. That’s probably going to be more of our personality this year.”
#1 Kristine Brance (junior)
Brance may be new to UCSB, but she’s not lacking any experience. The Latvia native transfers to Santa Barbara after playing two years at the nationally ranked Chipola College in Florida, where she led her team in scoring, averaging 14.2 points per game. She shot 39 percent from the field and an incredible 36 percent from three point range. Bringing toughness from her experience, knowledge of how to win, as well as the European style to UCSB, Brance will be critical in providing an offensive spark, especially from behind the arc.
#2 Jasmine Ware (sophomore)
In her first season at UCSB, Ware showed her potential to fit into Mitchell’s system, proving to be an effective defensive stopper. In her 11.4 minutes per game last year, she averaged 0.5 steals per contest. This year, as a taller guard at 5’10’’, Ware could help the Gauchos offensively too, as she has a smooth shot from 15 to 17 feet. Mitchell even described her midrange game as “second to none on this team.” Plus, needing to play small and push the ball should play right into Ware’s strengths.
#3 Nicole Nesbit (senior)
One of the three key seniors this season, Nesbit is a two-time All-Big West honorable mention selection. As the floor general last season, she ranked third in minutes at 29.5 per game, second in points per game at 10.5, second in steals per game at 0.8 and led the team in assists per game at 2.8. This season, Nesbit will move over to the shooting guard where she can use her scoring instinct and speed to either get to the basket or rise up for the jumper off the dribble. And the more she can get to the rim, the better because last season she led the team in free throw percentage at an impressive 87.5 percent. According to Mitchell, “we haven’t seen Nic’s best game yet.” She is certainly capable of averaging double digits every night.
#10 Onome Jemerigbe (freshman)
The player allowing Nesbit to slide over to the shooting guard is Jemerigbe. Coming from a great high school team in St. Mary’s High, Mitchell compared her young point guard to Shannon Bobbitt from Tennessee. Giving the Gauchos a different type of point guard, Jemerigbe has a pass first mentality. Lightning quick, she has the lateral foot speed that UCSB has lacked the last few years, which will allow Santa Barbara to hound the opponent’s ball handler and help in transition defense.
#22 Melissa Zornig (senior)
The second of the trio of seniors, Zornig is another offensive threat for UCSB. She has the ability to score in a variety of ways, averaging 8.0 points per game and 81 percent shooting from the charity stripe last season. However, Zornig can certainly average double-figures this year, as shown by her career-high 24 points against UC Davis last season. Next to Brance, Zornig will form a duo of three-point threats as she led the team in three-point percentage last year at 32.5 percent. She also averaged 2.2 assists last year and led the team in assist to turnover ratio, exemplifying her high basketball I.Q. As the “most consistent player right now” according to Mitchell, Zornig will be a big part of the team and a leader for Santa Barbara this upcoming season.
#33 Destini Mason (senior)
Rounding out the trio of seniors is Mason, who is known as the athletic defensive stopper for the Gauchos. Described by Mitchell as even “light-years better than last year,” Mason has stepped up as the vocal leader for UCSB. Ranking second on the team in three-point percentage last year at 28.0 percent and third on the team in rebounding, but the top rebounding guard, at 3.8 per game, Mason is an exceptionally versatile player. Like Angelei Aguirre from last season, Mason will be asked to play a lot of minutes in lots of positions, anywhere from one through four.
#13 Kendra Morrison (sophomore)
Morrison only played 5.8 minutes per game last year, but when she did find time on the court, she took advantage, shooting 43.8 percent from the field. Showing what she could do last year against USC where she totaled 11 points on 5-5 shooting, Morrison should expect more minutes this season with the lack of depth at the forward position. With a high basketball I.Q. and the ability to open up the offense because she is a stronger body who can also knock down the three, it could be a breakout season for Morrison.
#34 Mi’Chael Wright (freshman)
In high school, Wright averaged 12.7 points and 9.4 rebounds. Now here at UCSB, Wright is a blue-collar player with a knack for rebounding, which will be critical for the Gauchos because if they’re going to play a faster style, they have to be able to rebound. Described by Mitchell to be like Charles Barkley or a more offensively- minded Aguirre from last season, Wright has the ability to put up 10-12 points a night simply on hustle and her notable basketball I.Q.
#12 Melissa Maragnes (freshman)
At 6’2’’, Maragnes will be the tallest player on the UCSB roster this season and be responsible for guarding the opponent’s center. At St. Monica High School, she averaged 9.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, setting the school’s block record at 60. As an amazing athlete who Mitchell says plays “almost above the rim,” Maragnes has the potential of becoming a big-time player for Santa Barbara in the future.
A version of this article appeared on page 14 of October 30th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo courtesy of Ramon Rovirosa