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Last season, the WNBA launched a new campaign called “3 to see,” featuring three talented rookies that will change the course of women’s basketball in the future.
The slogan also happens to perfectly describe the UCSB women’s basketball team.
While not rookies, three seniors having career seasons highlight the Gaucho roster and together, possess the capability to continue the incredible tradition known by the program for dominating the Big West.
“You know what you’re going to get from them every day and that’s all you can ask for,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “Their numbers have been very consistent. They’re doing what you want as you build a program for your seniors to be able to do.”
Leading the way offensively for UCSB is two-time All-Big West honorable mention selection Nicole Nesbit, who leads the team and ranks second in the Big West in scoring at 18.1 points per game. Shooting 46.8 percent from the field, the senior guard also tops her team in three-point shooting at 39.5 percent and assists with 3.4 per game.
Returning to her natural position of shooting guard this season, Nesbit has been given the green light to score and will have the ball in her hands during clutch situations. On Dec. 19, Nesbit joined the 1,000 point club, one of just 25 players in program history to hit this incredible milestone.
“She’s always had the God-given ability,” Mitchell said. “She has a great jumper; she can score in a variety of ways, but I think it’s more the mental side and the confidence (this year) that she doesn’t let one play to dictate her mindset the rest of the game.”
The second of UCSB’s three seniors is known for her versatility and defense. Playing positions one through four this year, guard Destini Mason averages 6.2 rebounds per game, second on the squad and tops among guards. She also adds 1.1 steals and .6 blocks per contest.
Yet, the most improvement for Mason can be seen on the offensive end. Currently averaging 13.2 points per game, Mason has broken her career-high three times already this season, culminating against Hampton when she scored 23 points, 10 higher than her career-high last season.
“Destini has played multiple positions for us and she’s done a great job at the four spot,” Mitchell said. “It’s allowed her to be in rebounding position because that’s what we were lacking, but we’ll need to move her back to the three spot a lot because defensively she gives us a guard with length.”
UCSB’s final senior has been known for her shooting since her arrival at UCSB, but this year, guard Melissa Zornig has developed into an all-around player. Doing a bit of everything for the Gauchos, Zornig is currently averaging 12.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game. At 2.5, she holds the highest assist to turnover ratio of the team, which is also good enough for third in the conference.
Zornig also leads the team and the Big West in free throw percentage, shooting 88.4 percent. Combined with Nesbit, the two give UCSB two of the top three shooters from the charity stripe in the league.
“Probably the biggest stat that stands out to me is her assist to turnover ratio,” Mitchell said. “She’s making the right decisions. She’s not shooting it as well from the three-point line, but she’s learned to score in a variety of ways, which makes her have an impact on games every night.”
With their veteran leadership, UCSB’s “Big Three” have led the Gauchos to a 5-8 start. While its record may not look all that impressive, the team that has been to the postseason the last two seasons saw stiff competition during the non-conference portion of its schedule as Santa Barbara faced teams such as Arizona, St. Mary’s, San Diego State and Kansas State.
UCSB lacks no experience playing in close games either with over half of the Gauchos’ games thus far being decided in the final minutes.
“I think there are probably two or three games we had a chance to win, so our record would look a little bit different. But playing bigger, stronger, quicker in the non-conference will help us as we get to Big West play,” Mitchell said. “As a team, we’re where we need to be individually skilled wise and our team understanding roles.”
The biggest problem in those losses was height. With only three forwards on the roster, and all being underclassmen, the average height on the Santa Barbara roster was 5’9’’.
However, the height dilemma was resolved Dec. 20 when junior forward Clair Watkins was cleared by the NCAA to play for UCSB. At 6’4’’, Watkins transfers from Vanderbilt where she played two seasons with the Commodores. Now a grad student, the Gauchos had to wait for Watkins’ acceptance into the school. Once accepted, the NCAA immediately cleared her to play.
In her three games as a Gaucho, Watkins has given Santa Barbara exactly what it was missing. Averaging 4.0 points and 1.0 block per game as well as team-highs in rebounding and steals with 7.0 and 2.3 per game, respectively, Watkins gives UCSB a defensive presence inside that will allow the team to compete with other teams in the Big West with height.
“Clair allows us to be able to execute more in the half court, which I think all great teams have to at championship time,” Mitchell said. “With her body type and experience playing in the SEC, it is the defense and rebounding that will add the most to our team.”
Currently last in the conference in rebounding at just 32.5 boards per game, rebounding has been a significant factor for UCSB in the win-loss column. Santa Barbara grabs 37.8 rebounds in victories compared to 29.2 in losses.
“As soon as the ball goes up, we have to find a body and be aggressive,” Mason said. “Be the aggressor. We have to go after the ball. It takes heart, will and positioning.”
Despite the team’s success in past years, with just five returning players from last season and a lack of height until the addition of Watkins, Santa Barbara remains the underdog going into conference play.
In the Big West preseason media poll, UCSB was predicted to finish fifth behind Cal Poly, Hawaii, Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State. In addition, no Gaucho was picked to the preseason all-Big West Conference first team, although Nesbit is averaging more points than the reigning Big West Player of the Year, Molly Schlemer from Cal Poly.
Of course, the Gauchos don’t mind being the underdog. The last time they were in a similar position, they won the Big West Tournament as the sixth seed.
“I’d rather be the underdog,” Zornig said. “We’ll go and prove people wrong.”
In fact, this may be the team with the most potential under the Carlene Mitchell era as UCSB is putting more points on the scoreboard than any other team during Mitchell’s reign. Santa Barbara is currently averaging 67.1 points per game, much higher than the average 52.3 during the previous two seasons. The Gauchos also rank first in the Big West in field goal percentage, shooting 42.0 percent.
In addition, despite the team’s new run and gun style, UCSB leads the conference in turnovers, giving the ball up just 13.8 times per contest.
“When we pass the ball and we’re less selfish, we don’t have a lot of turnovers and we win the game, so I think that’s the main key to less turnovers is playing as a team,” Mason said.
But at the heart of any team coached by Mitchell will always be defense. While not atop the Big West standings as in previous years, Santa Barbara still ranks third in the league in scoring defense, holding teams to 69.9 points per game. When the game has been on the line, it’s been UCSB’s defense that has clinched victories.
“We all know we can score, which is obviously different than last year, but the key for conference play will be our defense,” Zornig said. “We’re only going to win if we play defense.”
UCSB begins conference play Saturday at rival Cal Poly for the first Blue-Green rivalry match-up of the New Year.
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of January 9th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.