Head Coach Carlene Mitchell has accomplished a lot in her two and a half years at the helm of the UCSB women’s basketball team.
She’s won a Big West Tournament Title and been to the NCAA Tournament. She went to the WNIT last year, making it consecutive years she’s been to the postseason. She’s had players named to the Big West all-conference team and even has a player playing professionally overseas.
But there’s one thing Mitchell has yet to achieve that is a requirement for all Gauchos: beat Cal Poly.
The only team in the Big West Mitchell has yet to defeat, the long-time assistant from Rutgers is 0-5 against the Mustangs in her two seasons at Santa Barbara, losing by an average 13.0 points per game.
“There’s no magic wand. We’re going to have to do a lot of things well to beat them on their home court,” Mitchell said. “The competitive side of me wants to win, but I want to win more for the seniors and I want to win more for this program and having the chance to win championships, and right now, that’s going through Poly.”
In fact, only three players on the UCSB roster know the feeling of defeating the team’s biggest rival. Dating back to March 5, 2011, the seniors, guards Destini Mason, Nicole Nesbit and Melissa Zornig, helped earn a 78-67 on the road over Cal Poly to become co-Big West Champions.
The Gauchos now get another shot at Cal Poly Saturday when Mitchell and her squad open Big West play in San Luis Obispo.
“We’ve haven’t beaten them since our freshman year, and not even on our home floor,” Zornig said. “It’s pretty frustrating, especially since some of the games have been close. I think for us seniors, it’d be huge to come out and beat them.”
Both teams enter Saturday’s installment of the Blue-Green rivalry with recent struggles. At 5-8 overall, Santa Barbara has lost five of its last six games. Similarly, Cal Poly has dropped three of its last four, but Wednesday night improved to 7-7 overall and 1-0 in the Big West with a 78-74 overtime victory in Hawaii.
Playing a long game Wednesday in Hawaii and then returning home for a game Saturday presents a taxing travel schedule for the Mustangs. Last season, teams who played Hawaii at the beginning of the week went 0-4 in their following game that weekend.
Nevertheless, on top of the Blue-Green rivalry and defending a five-game winning streak over UCSB, Cal Poly will have the motivation of defending its home court, where the team is 5-0 so far this season.
“You know you’re going to expect energy with the tradition these two programs have had and the rivalry,” Mitchell said. “I don’t have to say anything and I’m sure [Cal Poly Head Coach Faith Nimnaugh] doesn’t have to say anything for the players to show up and understand how important this game is.”
The biggest problem in previous years for the Gauchos was the Mustang’s potent offense, which will once again serve as a challenge as Cal Poly tops the Big West in scoring with 74.9 points per game. Last year’s Big West Tournament Champions also rank second in the conference in field goal percentage and three point percentage, shooting 40.9 and 32.2 percent, respectively.
Option number one on the offensive end for Cal Poly is the reigning Big West Player of the Year, 6’5’’ senior center Molly Schlemer. Schlemer ranks third in the Big West in points per game (17.8), first in rebounding (10.8) and second in field goal percentage (54.7 percent).
Taking the assignment on Schlemer will be 6’4’’ junior center Clair Watkins, who averages a team-high 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals in her three games with UCSB after transferring from Vanderbilt.
“All five times (we’ve lost) the problem has been on the defensive side of it. We have to try to figure out a way to guard Molly,” Mitchell said. “Even though (last year’s senior center Kirsten) Tilleman was blue-collar and had the toughness, she was legit 6’1’’,” Mitchell said. “This year, we’ve worked on a lot more zone, so I think we can mix it up a lot more where it’s not just one on one post defense.”
However, Schlemer is one of just several options for the Mustangs offensively. The team also features two All-Big West honorable mention selections from last season in a pair of point guards. Junior Ariana Elegado is currently averaging 15.5 points and a team-high 4.6 assists per game, good enough to tie her for first in the Big West. Senior Jonae Ervin adds 10.8 points and 4.5 assists per game. Wednesday night against Hawaii, Ervin exploded for a career-high 37 points and team-high 10 rebounds to help her team come back from 17 down to win.
“As seniors we know what to expect and I’m telling [our teammates], ‘be ready for these guards’ because they’re no joke,” Mason said. “They’re very talented and smart and know how to play together.”
Therefore, if UCSB wants a chance for a victory, it will have to play incredible defense. While not as dominant as in previous years, the Gauchos still rank third in the Big West in scoring defense, holding teams to 69.9 points per game.
Santa Barbara will then have to finish the job defensively by rebounding. Cal Poly leads the conference in rebounding at 43.9 per game while UCSB ranks last in the category with just 32.5 boards per game. In addition, in victories, the Gauchos average 37.8 rebounds compared to 29.2 in losses.
“Whether you’re full fronting and you need to roll to get in rebounding position or you got caught behind, you have to put a body on [Molly],” Mitchell said. “She’s big and you have to make the refs call it. You’re not going to get any calls unless you block out and make contact.”
Offensively, UCSB is a much improved team this year, putting up an average of 67.1 points on the scoreboard each outing, almost 15 more points per game than in Mitchell’s previous two seasons. The Gauchos also lead the Big West in field goal percentage, shooting 42.0 percent.
However, while the Gauchos have succeeded with the fast break, Saturday will be all about defense.
“We definitely don’t want a track meet. We’re not going to outscore anyone and I’ll continue to say that we have the ability to score high 60’s and 70’s any given night,” Mitchell said. “Defense will be the emphasis. I probably won’t even write any offenses on the board because I think if we can do the things we need to on the defensive end of things, we’ll have a chance to win.”
Tip-off Saturday is set for 4 p.m. at Robert A. Mott Gym.
This article is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Shaminder Dhindsa of the Daily Nexus