The UCSB women’s basketball team has nothing to lose.
When the eighth seed Gauchos travel to Long Beach State tomorrow where they will take on fifth seed UC Davis in the first round of the Big West Tournament, Santa Barbara isn’t expected to win.
They’ve had a disappointing season, finishing the year at 8-20 overall and 3-13 in the Big West. They lost both games to the Aggies this season, which went 14-15 overall and 9-7 in conference play.
In fact, UCSB is lucky to have even made the Tournament. If UC Riverside had beat Long Beach Saturday, the Gauchos’ season would be over.
Fortunately for Santa Barbara, it is playing in the postseason and records no longer matter.
“I think everyone’s really excited,” senior guard Melissa Zornig said. “The first thing [Head Coach Carlene Mitchell] told us today when we walked into film was that we’re 0-0. Whatever happened during the regular season doesn’t matter now. We’re ready to make a run and upset teams.”
Going into the Big West Tournament as the last seed makes the Gauchos the major underdogs, and that’s how they like it.
The situation is reminiscent to two years ago when UCSB entered the conference tournament as the sixth seed. The team caught fire, winning the Big West Tournament and punching its ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
“The kids know we have an uphill battle, but they also saw what USC did this past week,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been a low seed before and won games to get to the NCAA (Tournament). It’s March Madness and it’s called that for a reason.”
But before Santa Barbara can think too far ahead, it has to take care of the task at hand. Tonight, that’s beating UC Davis.
Both teams head to Long Beach with their final games of the regular season resulting in losses. The Aggies fell to UC Irvine Saturday while the Gauchos lost to rival Cal Poly.
Nevertheless, UCSB played very well against the Mustangs, which will take the second seed in the Tournament. If Santa Barbara takes the intensity it had Saturday to Long Beach tomorrow, the Gauchos could upset a lot of teams.
The reason UCSB came out with the loss Saturday was defensive breakdowns down the stretch. The Gauchos gave Cal Poly’s outside shooters too much space and the Mustangs took advantage. Elegado hit two in the final minutes to clinch the game, recording a career-high 32 points on the afternoon.
While UCSB played a solid game Saturday, the defensive breakdowns speak to Santa Barbara’s struggles all year long. Offense is not causing losses. Unlike in years prior where scoring was tough, this year it’s the defensive lapses and lack of consistency that put the Gauchos in the bottom of the standings.
“We always focus on defense,” Zornig said. “We’ve been playing a lot of zone lately, but we’re going to mix it up. We just have to play disciplined.”
In their two meetings with the Aggies this year, the Gauchos failed to put together more than 20 minutes of good basketball. In the first meeting in Davis, UCSB played well in the first half, but fell apart in the second, allowing UCD to shoot 41.7 percent from three point range. In the more recent matchup, Santa Barbara didn’t come to play, going down 15-2 to start the game. Davis shot 56 percent in the first half before the Gauchos played the Aggies even in the second half.
“It’s the defensive side of things (that matter),” Mitchell said. “We have to do a better job on our post defense because they went at us all night long. We may mix it up like we did with Poly and see if it helps change the outcome.”
The matchup of the game tomorrow will be down low with junior center Clair Watkins versus sophomore forward Alyson Doherty. Doherty averages 13.1 points per game, shooting a league-leading 55.7 percent from the field. Against the Gauchos, she’s upped her production, averaging 19 points in the two meetings.
But as of late, UCSB also has a post presence inside in Watkins. The last five games, Watkins has nearly averaged a double-double at 10 points and 9.2 rebounds. Against Cal Poly, she held last year’s Big West Player of the Year, senior center Molly Schlemer, to 13 points. Meanwhile, Watkins tallied superior numbers at 16 points and 12 rebounds. While Santa Barbara is a guard-driven team, its success depends on Watkins.
“I’m going to try to take the momentum I got in the Cal Poly game and try to carry it into the Davis game,” Watkins said. “[Doherty] had a good game here when they played us, but I think we’re all ready. It comes down to post defense for me.”
The other player UCSB will keep an eye on is junior forward Sydnee Fipps. Named an All-Big West first team member today, Fipps ranks third in the conference in scoring at 17.8 points per game.
As a result, UCSB may pull a triangle-and-two defense out of its pocket. Led by Doherty and Fipps, the Aggies rank first in field goal percentage, shooting an impressive 42.3 percent from the field.
Yet, the Gauchos aren’t far behind in that category, shooting 41.1 percent.
“It’s really hard to beat a team three times,” Watkins said. “We’ve learned a lot from playing them twice. We know their go-to players, their moves and what they want to do on offense and defense, so hopefully we can learn and apply it and finally get a win against them.”
Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. at Walter Pyramid.
This article is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of the Daily Nexus.