Tuesday marks the beginning of the 2015-16 Big West Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament. The four day event—scheduled for March 8-9 and 11-12—will begin with its first two rounds at the Bren Events Center in Irvine, CA and will conclude its semifinal and final rounds at the Honda Center in Anaheim, CA.
Beginning the tournament will be a first-round matchup between the UCSB women’s basketball team and tournament host UC Irvine.
After a 2-27, 2-14 conference finish last season, the Gauchos return to the postseason as the No. 5 seed set to face the No. 8 seeded Anteaters. Despite its 11-19 overall finish, Santa Barbara’s 8-8 Big West record and fifth-place standing is its best conference finish since its 11 wins and No. 4 seed in the 2012-13 season.
It’s a significant return for UCSB and first-year Head Coach Bonnie Henrickson after being predicted to finish last in the conference standings in the Big West Preseason Poll.
It is also enriching for the program as the Gauchos own the most Big West Conference Tournament wins with 44 and championships at 14. The Gauchos last won the conference tournament during their 2012-13 run, in which they made history as the lowest seed (sixth) in Big West history to win the championship.
Due to splitting its regular season series with Cal State Fullerton, who also finished with a 1-15 conference record, it was by virtue of winning a coin flip that UC Irvine clinched the eighth seed.
Despite ending the season with a 4-26 overall and 1-15 conference record, the Anteaters may be able to capitalize on their home advantage. But, this home advantage isn’t a guaranteed benefit for UCI after finishing with a 2-11 home record and ending the season on a 10 game losing streak.
Nonetheless, contributing to its losing slump were two losses to UCSB as the Gauchos achieved a season sweep of the Anteaters.
In two meetings this season, Santa Barbara defeated UCI by a combined point differential of 23.5 points.
For the most part of this season, losses by a double-figure margin has been the tale for the Anteaters. They’ve managed to lose by a single-figure differential just three times this season and even allowed 126 points in a loss to Sacramento State in December.
While statistics prove that UCI isn’t a great offensive team, shooting around 34 percent in both overall and conference play, UCSB’s defense has done an exceptional job all season long, especially against UCI.
The Gauchos finished third in the Big West in points allowed per game with a 63.1 average. Their stout defense improved in conference play as well, finishing second in the rankings allowing 61.8 ppg.
In spite of allowing a 40.4 field goal percentage in the first meeting, Santa Barbara forced 22 turnovers in the game and outscored the Anteaters 31-13 in points off turnovers to go along with 11 steals. The Gauchos continued their defensive dominance in their second matchup against UCI, limiting the Anteaters to a field goal percentage of 31 percent (18-58 shooting) and 14.3 percent from behind the three-point line. They held UCI to four points in the second and fourth quarters in the same contest.
Still, just like any team in the country this postseason, UCSB cannot underestimate the Anteaters’ potential to pull off an upset Tuesday night. After making the decision to forgo her senior season, junior forward Mokun Fajemisin will be looking to make an impact in what could be her final game.
UCI’s leading scorer and rebounder with 9.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, Fajemisin also leads the Big West in blocks per game with a 2.0 per game. She is coming off 16 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks in the team’s 76-70 loss to UC Davis.
Santa Barbara will also face the Big West’s top playmaker in senior guard Raelyn Cheung-Sutton. She led the Big West in assists per game with 5.7. Cheung-Sutton remained consistent in conference play, averaging 5.5 helpers per contest. She enters Tuesday after registering a season-high 17 points and tying her career-high total of 12 assists in the loss to UCD.
While UCSB’s backcourt will deal with the task of containing Cheung-Sutton’s vision on the court, an improvement in play by sophomore guard Makala Roper is essential if the Gauchos plan on making a run this postseason.
After starting in just six games her freshman season and averaging 6.5 ppg, Roper emerged as UCSB’s top scorer in her second year leading the Gauchos in scoring with 11.8 ppg.
Enhancing her increase in scoring was her range from beyond the arc. During the regular season, Roper ranked fourth in the Big West in three-point percentage at 38.7 percent.
However, as the Gauchos enter Tuesday 1-3 in their last four games, Roper has struggled during this span as well. She scored 10 points once during this stretch of games along with registering just two points in 19 minutes of play in the team’s final game at Hawaii last Thursday.
But Roper’s ability to embrace the role placed upon her this season did not go unnoticed as she earned All-Big West Honorable Mention honors on Monday. Senior Jasmine Ware also was named to the Honorable Mention team while freshman guard Coco Miller was selected to the All-Freshman Team.
The first round of the Big West Conference Tournament is set to tip-off at 6 p.m. this Tuesday, March 8 at the Bren Events Center.