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Playing the worst team in the Big West could not have come at a better time for the UCSB women’s basketball team.
After losing to three of the top teams in the conference in Cal Poly, Long Beach State and Cal State Northridge, the Gauchos will host UC Riverside tonight looking for their first Big West win of the season.
Entering game two of a three-game homestand, Santa Barbara is currently 5-11 overall and 0-3 in league play.
The team has lost eight of its last nine, with its last victory dating back to almost a month ago when UCSB defeated Seattle Dec. 28.
“I think we all know our potential, so it’s frustrating, but at the same time, we’re staying positive,” senior guard Melissa Zornig said. “There’s still a lot of season left. As long as we all stay positive and stay on the same page, I think we’ll be fine.”
One of two teams still winless in conference, the Gauchos need to make a run quickly in the ultra-competitive Big West this year.
The other team still chasing its first conference victory is Riverside. The Highlanders are also extremely hungry for a victory having lost 10 consecutive games. They enter the Thunderdome with a 4-13 overall and a 0-4 Big West mark.
“We’re both backed in the corner as far as our record and Big West standings,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “There’s no panic, but there is a sense of urgency. We just need to take care of business at home the next two games, and we’ll be at the same record we started out at this point last year. We know what to do. It’s just a matter of buckling down and getting it done.”
One fatal flaw for UCSB in Big West contests so far has been falling behind by large margins and needing to play catch up late in the game.
“There’s no reason for us to dig ourselves holes like that,” Mitchell said. “This team is a little uncomfortable with who to go to and through when we need a basket, so everyone puts themselves on an island and tries to do it on their own. You can never do that. It takes five players on the court, so they need to learn to trust each other.”
While the Gauchos’ offense is plenty capable of scoring, ranking first in the Big West in field-goal percentage the majority of the year, Santa Barbara knows that defense is what wins it games and that they must return to their defensive prowess from previous years. Right now, UCSB ranks fifth in scoring defense, giving up 70.8 points per game.
“Opening up conference, we knew we had to write it across our chest as being a defensive team first,” senior guard Nicole Nesbit said. “That will lead to offense and transition baskets, but it has to start with defense. We know that.”
Commanding the attention of any defense in the conference is sophomore guard Brittany Crain. Crain leads the Hinglanders in virtually every category, but also tops the Big West in scoring with 19.7 points per game, including 22.0 points during conference play. She also ranks first in conference in steals with 2.1 per game.
“We’re going to stick to fundamental defense, just really bother her,” Nesbit said. “You try to make her job difficult and contest her shots and stay in front of her.”
However, the Highlanders do feature four players averaging double-figures. One player that the Gauchos will keep an eye on is senior center Natasha Hadley. The only senior on the squad, Hadley has given Santa Barbara trouble in the past as she was Riverside’s leading scorer against UCSB in both matchups last year, averaging 17.5 points per game.
“We have to get it done on the defensive end,” Zornig said. “It’s obvious we can score. Our offense is fine this year. But on the defensive end we’ve been struggling, so if we focus on that, we should be fine.”
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. at the Thunderdome.
A version of this article appeared on page 6 of January 23rd’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.