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If there is one thing associated with the UCSB women’s basketball team, it’s winning.
The Gauchos have dominated the Big West, owning the highest Big West winning percentage of any current conference team and the most league championships.
Santa Barbara has expected no less in the first three years of the Carlene Mitchell Era, as UCSB went to the NCAA Tournament her first year in Santa Barbara and made the postseason her first two years ever as a head coach.
However, this season was very different in what was a season of struggle for the Gauchos. Finishing the year at just 8-22 overall and 3-13 in conference play, Santa Barbara barely qualified for the Big West Tournament, losing to UC Davis in the first round.
In that loss, UCSB’s seniors scored every point in the second-half comeback. Losing its entire starting backcourt to graduation, the Gauchos will miss the majority of its scoring as senior guards Nicole Nesbit, Melissa Zornig and Destini Mason accounted for 64.3 percent of the team’s offense.
All three averaged double-digit scoring for Santa Barbara and were the only players to do so. Nesbit and Zornig both hit the 1,000-point career milestone this season and were named All-Big West Honorable Mention selections.
“They understand that they’re not going to be remembered by their last record. All of them left here better players,” Mitchell said. “All have signed with agents and will have a chance to play in Europe.”
Nevertheless, Santa Barbara does return seven players. In fact, its two returning starters are at the two positions most difficult to replace. Next season, freshman point guard Onome Jemerigbe will return as a sophomore after being named to the Big West All-Freshmen team this season and averaging 5.8 points and 2.2 assists while running the show for UCSB.
Playing center, junior Clair Watkins will play her first full season with the Gauchos after joining the team in December this season. Watkins found her stride toward the end of the year, averaging 8.6 points and 8.4 rebounds in the last seven games.
Along with junior guard Kristine Brance, Watkins will be expected to be the leader of next year’s squad.
“I think our upperclassmen have had a great postseason and have worked harder than any group in my three years here,” Mitchell said. “Some of that you can talk up to the bitter taste we had in our mouth. Now they realize you have three senior guards leaving and someone has to step up. I’ve told Clair she has the ability to be one of the best post players in the conference. When she’s willing to step up and carry that burden, then we’ll be a big-time team.”
While Mitchell looks to replace the offense lost from the graduating seniors with this year’s recruits, the focus will return to the defensive end. This season, the Gauchos scored more points than any team during Mitchell’s reign, but also gave up the most points of any of her past teams.
“It’s going to go back to being that really mean, tough, defensive team,” Mitchell said. “I think a combination of us trying to prove we could score 70 points a game this season … somehow we didn’t have the mindset or mentality to put away close games. So you know a lot of that will be put on my shoulders to make sure out team knows what our identity will look like, but I don’t think it will be hard to convince them after our record this year.”
Therefore, in recruiting, Mitchell looked for versatile players while looking to add height to the roster.
“We were looking for versatility and more of a physical presence body-wise. At the end of the day, most of the time it was on the defensive end we had a hard time matching up with people because of our lack of size,” Mitchell said. “At the championship level or when you get to March, it’s about grinding it out in the half court, both offensively and defensively. All play for great programs and they know what it takes to win. That’s, to me, the biggest thing.”
This year’s recruiting class includes guard Dioseline Lopez, guard/forward Chaya Durr, guard Makala Roper, guard Taylor Farris and forward/center Sabrina Callahan.
Mitchell’s newest recruit, Lopez, is a 5’6” guard transferring from East Los Angeles College. Averaging 14.3 points per game and leading the South Coast Conference in assists, rebounds and steals with 7.4, 4.3 and 2.3 per game, respectively, Lopez was named SCC North Division Player of the Year.
Lopez was also named to the All-SCC North First Team for the second time and the California Community College Athletic Association All-State Third Team.
“It only took me watching film on Dee to see that swag she has. She was able to play with our kids, and right away they were begging us to take her,” Mitchell said. “She’s a true point guard, but like Nic, has the ability to score a lot. I think [she] will relieve some of the pressure from Onome thinking that she has to carry the burden.”
Lopez brings more depth to the point guard position, but can also serve as a scoring threat for UCSB. Leading her team to the second round of the CCCAA Southern California playoffs, she scored 33 points and six assists in a tight 92-88 overtime loss.
“She’ll run the show, she’ll facilitate, but if we need her to score, she has that ability,” Mitchell said. “She has toughness. She hasn’t had the easiest path to get here, and that’s okay with me because she has that fire to prove to everyone she can play at this level.”
Durr missed her senior season at Sacramento High School with an ACL tear, but should be 100 percent ready to go in August or September. She will join teammate Jasmine Ware as the second Sac High Lady Dragon on the Gaucho roster.
“I have no problem saying it: We would’ve never signed her if she hadn’t have torn her ACL,” Mitchell said. “But I’m not worried about her missing her senior year of high school. We know what she’s capable of.”
Playing the guard or forward position and listed at 5’11”, Durr averaged a double-double during her junior year with 18 points and 12 rebounds per contest. She also tallied 4.0 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. As a result, Durr was named all-city and an all-league first team member.
“She’s a big-time athlete, very passionate and can make a huge difference on the [boards],” Mitchell said. “Defensively, she’s one of those that, if we want to press — and if you saw the team our last game of the year against Davis, that’s the style that will fit Chaya and help us have more of an up-tempo look.”
A combination guard from Cleveland High School in Seattle, 5’8” Roper earned 3A Player of the Year honors this year after helping her team win the Class 3A State Girls Basketball title as both a junior and senior. Roper was honored with the MVP trophy of the Class 3A All-Tournament Team as well.
“She’s a lefty and a deadly shooter,” Mitchell said. “She could play a little bit of point because she has great handles and even though she puts up big numbers and has the reputation of being a scorer, we know she’s a great passer and facilitator.”
Leading her team to an undefeated 16-0 conference record, the player her teammates call “Sniper” averaged 16.3 points per game her senior year. In addition, according to MaxPreps, Roper is the top-ranked player in Washington.
“She’ll be able to play the scoring position,” Mitchell said. “Losing Mel Zornig, she should give us that three-point shooter that we have graduating.”
Farris joins the Gauchos from Renton, Washington. Listed at 5’11”, Farris was named the League MVP as a junior. The same year, she led Renton High to third place, its best finish in the 2A State Tournament since 1987.
“Taylor Farris is a long athlete,” Mitchell said. “She’s better around the basket and the rim. She works well in tight quarters and has great timing. ”
Playing the guard position, Farris averaged 20.9 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 7.3 steals and 4.1 blocks her senior season.
“She played at a smaller high school, but played for one of the top AAU programs, so we have no question she can come right in with her length — she gets tons of deflections,” Mitchell said. “Her comfort level may be the four right now because she’s great from the high post, but at some point, she shoots it well enough she’ll be able to move out to a perimeter position for us.”
Playing at forward or center at one of the women’s basketball powerhouses in Southern California, La Jolla Country Day School, Callahan averaged 13.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. At 6’0”, she also shot 51 percent from the field.
“From day one, I told my staff I wanted a kid that played for Terri Bamford. She’s that good and that respected at La Jolla Country Day,” Mitchell said. “Her kids typically play with her all through their AAU program also, so they’re well-coached and understand the skills.”
This season, Callahan earned All-San Diego Section second team honors.
“Sabrina understands all the little things it takes to win, whether it’s screening, being a great passer, and a lot of times she’s the one out there directing traffic on the floor from the four position,” Mitchell said. “She gives us size, she gives us versatility and at some point she’ll move over to the wing position as well.”
The UCSB women’s basketball team will begin its season in November. Included on the schedule will be LSU, which was a Sweet 16 team in the NCAA Tournament last season.
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of June 5th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.