Angie Banks/Daily Nexus

Anytime the UCSB women’s basketball team takes on Cal Poly, the stakes are already high. And with the Gauchos looking to secure their first win in Big West play the tensions will be even higher.

When the two struggling sides meet up on Saturday in San Luis Obispo–both desperate for their first conference victory–the stakes will be even higher.

Despite Santa Barbara entering the game with a 3-11 record, the team has begun to show major signs of improvement in recent weeks.

After knocking off San Diego State in December, the Gauchos have dropped both of their last matchups by merely single digits, including a valiant 73-65 defeat in the Big West opener against CSUN. That game in particular displayed the growth of the young Gauchos side, with the team keeping the game close throughout despite junior Coco Miller–the team’s leading scorer–shooting only 2-17 from the floor.

Santa Barbara’s offense–the biggest culprit for the team’s slow start–has seen an uptick since sophomore guard Danae Miller came back from injury. Danae’s four assists per game leads the team, and her speed has allowed the Gauchos to play more in transition, leading to easier baskets.

In their last game against CSUN, Head Coach Bonnie Henrickson opted to tighten up the rotation, playing both Danae Miller and Coco Miller for almost the entire game. While the Gauchos scored 73 points in that game, the bench contributed only 11 of those points–with all 11 coming from junior forward Tal Sahar. As conference play continues and fatigue becomes more of a factor, Henrickson will need greater production from her bench if the Gauchos hope to stay competitive.

Only one game into conference play, it’s risky to call any game a must-win matchup. Still, for two teams that have struggled mightily throughout the season, a win on Saturday will aid greatly in getting their season back on track. Given both teams’ offensive struggles and defensive prowess, expect a low-scoring affair on Saturday where 60 points may be all that’s needed to secure the win.

Cal Poly (0-1, 3-9)

The Cal Poly women’s basketball team enters Saturday’s match just as desperate for a victory as any other Big West team after getting thumped at home by UC Irvine in their conference opener, 75-59.

On the season, Cal Poly comes in with a 3-9 record, with only two of those victories over division I opponents.

Similarly to the Gauchos, the Achilles heel for Cal Poly all season has been their offense, with the team scoring only about 60 points per game.

Recently, however, the Mustang’s offense has been slightly more potent since the return of graduate transfer Hana Vesela from injury.

In her three games this season, Vesela has averaged almost 11 points per game. As she gets more acclimated to the team’s offense, her offensive output should continue to increase even more.

Saturday’s game will be a battle of two nearly identical teams when it comes to play style. Both teams look to play inside out, featuring their big on the inside to swallow up rebounds and finish off easy layups.

For the Mustangs, sophomore center Devin Stanback leads the team with 13.6 points per game while shooting an impressive 51 percent from the floor. For Santa Barbara, junior center Natalia Bruening has essentially played the same role, scoring 10 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor. Imperative to both team’s success on Saturday will be their stud center staying out of foul trouble–an issue that in particular has plagued Bruening throughout the season.

Cal Poly also excels on the boards; despite their overall struggles, they have consistently out-rebounded their opponents throughout the season. For a Gauchos team that prefers to play with four guards, it will be imperative for them to box-out and limit any easy second chance opportunities for the Mustangs.

Long Beach State (0-0, 3-10)

Despite being picked to finish fourth in the Big West preseason poll, Long Beach State struggled significantly in non-conference play. With both an anemic offense and an undersized core that has been dominated on the glass, LBS limps into conference play with a 3-10 record.

Led by sophomore guard Shanaijah Davison’s 14.8 points per game, Long Beach State averages fewer than 60 points per game. Even Davison — a preseason All-Big West pick — has struggled with her efficacy, shooting only 37 percent from the floor despite taking almost 15 shots per game.

When Long Beach has been able to keep it close — with five of the team’s losses scoring in the single digits — the team has been sunk by its 59 free throw percentage.

While Long Beach has played with a relatively solid defense — they currently hold opponents to 43 percent from the floor — their Achilles heel all season has been their lack of rebounds. On average, Long Beach State has been outrebounded by 16 rebounds per game, allowing their opponents to have second-chance opportunities despite their solid initial defense.

Still, they will enter conference play with a bit of momentum on their side after winning their last two non-conference matchups, including a 50-48 victory over Utah State in their last game.

During that game, graduate transfer forward Cydnee Kinslow made her season debut after sitting out the first 12 games injured, and immediately made her presence known by grabbing nine rebounds in 37 minutes.

The addition of Kinslow should help Long Beach play more competitively.    Though Long Beach State has struggled most of the season, don’t be surprised if Davison cleans up her offensive efficiency and leads the team to a .500 record in the conference.

UCI (1-0, 13-1)

The UC Irvine women’s basketball team was selected to finish in third place by the Big West preseason poll with only sophomore forward Jordan Sanders earning a spot on the preseason All-Conference Team.

Now, 13 games and one league match into the season, there is no doubt that the Anteaters are the team to beat thus far into conference play.

Currently, UCI is at the top of the Big West conference with a 1-0 league record and, more importantly, an 11-2 overall mark.

One of the Anteaters two losses came against a very tough Oregon team ranked No. 5 in the country but the other came against a much weaker San Diego State team that is just 5-8 on the year.

SDSU did beat two other Big West programs in Hawai’i and Cal State Fullerton but lost to UC Santa Barbara.

Regardless, UC Irvine is the only team in the league thus far to have double digit wins and that is in large part to the performance of Sanders who is averaging an astonishing 21.1 points per game.

That is not just the best mark on her team but the second best average in the Big West sitting just behind UC Davis’ Morgan Bertsch.

Sanders also leads her team in rebounds per game with 5.5 boards per contest.

She also receives help from fellow teammates Lauren Saiki and Andee Ritter who both average double figures in points per contest.  

With three stud players on offense, UC Irvine hopes it can continue its great start to the year and possibly earn a Big West title.

UC Irvine takes on CSUN on Saturday at 2 p.m.

CSUN (1-0, 7-8)

Cal State Northridge women’s basketball team is currently 7-8 on the year and will look to get back to .500 as they played their second game of the conference schedule.

It has been an up and down year for the Matadors but they were able to pick up a win in their most recent matchup against UC Santa Barbara.

They are led by senior center Channon Fluker who is averaging a double double on the year with 16 points and 11 rebounds. She also leads the team with the highest field goal percentage from the field with 48.3 percent.

One of the problems that the squad has faced this year is that they lack a consistent second scorer behind Fluker. With no one on the team averaging double figures besides Fluker, it has been difficult at times for them to put up points consistently. With them in the midst of conference play, it will be crucial for a second scorer to emerge in order to keep opposing defenses from keying on Fluker in the paint.

On the flip side, CSUN has been very impressive on the defensive end of the floor as they have held opponents to just 38 percent from the field. Much of that can be attributed to the consistent ball pressure which has led to opposing offenses struggling to find the bottom of the net.

In order for the Matadors to turn their season around, they will need to find more ways to score the basketball, which also means that they must improve their three point percentage. With more consistent from behind the three point line, it will help keep defenses honest which will lead to easier shots for every player.

CSUN is back in action at UC Irvine where they will look to pick up their second win in conference play at 2 p.m.

Hawai’i (0-1, 4-10)

With Big West play in full effect, the Hawai’i women’s basketball team is set to bounce back following a tough league opener loss to Cal State Fullerton.

Overall, Hawai’i has struggled all year long boasting just a 4-10 overall mark to this point in the season.

Additionally, the Rainbow Wahine are just 1-4 away from their home court.

Luckily, they will return home for a quick two-game stretch with matches against UC Davis and Cal State Northridge.

Just recently, Hawai’i had won three straight games with two coming against well known division I programs but it is now losers of three straight. It’s last two losses have been by a combined five points.

Coming into conference play, the Rainbow Wahine were hoping to turn around this season and, despite a loss at the Cal State Fullerton, they still played a great game.

On Jan. 5, the Rainbow Wahine scored 68 points which was their third highest point total this season.

Hawai’i’s big scorer in that game was redshirt sophomore forward Amy Atwell who came up huge. She scored a career high 25 points in just 16 minutes with 18 of those points coming in the second half alone.

For the season, Atwell averages just four points a game, even after that terrific coming out party. With an increased role maybe she can be a factor this team needs to turn it around.

For now, the Rainbow Wahine will hope to continue relying on junior forward Makenna Woodfolk who leads the team in points per game with the only player in double figures at 11.8.

Unfortunately, in the last three games she has averaged just three points per contest.

Hawai’i will host UC Davis on Saturday at 1 p.m.

CSUF (1-0, 9-5)

The Cal State Fullerton women come into Big West play in 2019 one year removed from finishing last in the conference, missing out on the Big West Tournament and losing 12 out of their final 13 games.

Right now, however, their season is moving in a totally different trajectory, as they are currently sporting a 9-5 record and have won seven of their last eight contests —  including a win over Hawaii in their conference opener.

The Titans have a roster that contains a mixture of upperclassmen and underclassmen that provide valuable contributions to the squad. Four players are scoring in double figures on the season and that group is lead by redshirt senior Daeja Smith, whose averages of 13.8 points per game and 9.7 rebounds per game rank fifth and second in the Big West, respectively.

In addition to Smith, one of the keys to Fullerton’s early season success has been the playmaking ability of their backcourt duo.

Raina Perez and Jade Vega both average double-digit scoring numbers to go along with their averages of five-plus assists per game, each.

Perez and Vega rank second and third in the Big West in assists per game, giving Fullerton added versatility  as the two players are capable of handling the ball and playmaking for others on the floor. The ability that Perez and Vega have to score and assist the ball complements the inside scoring game of Daeja Smith and makes their team as a whole extremely difficult to guard.

The Titans finished in last place a season ago and were yet again picked to finish last according to the Big West preseason poll, but with the improved play of their returning players and the addition of some elite newcomers, Fullerton will look to turn the tables on the conference and show everyone that they can be a legitimate force in the Big West.

UC Riverside (0-1, 6-9)

Conference play for women’s basketball is now in full effect, as the second fixture for UC Riverside’s Big West campaign is set for this Thursday.

Coming off a close 59-67 defeat to UC Davis, for their first Big West confrontation, the UC Riverside Highlanders will look to improve as the young conference schedule begins to ramp up.

So far through the season, the Highlanders find themselves at a 6-9 overall record; enough for a .400 win percentage.

Signs point upwards, however, as the team evenly split their game schedule in the month of December, snagging a couple of road wins along the way.

Although, they’ll want to find their rhythm as soon as possible considering they dropped their first conference matchup of the new year.

UC Riverside’s redshirt junior guard, Jannon Otto, leads all scorers on the team with 195 points to her name so far through the season; that’s a 13 point per game average. Playmaking seems to also run through her as she also leads her side in total assists with 47.

Close behind Otto, in scoring, is junior forward Marina Ewodo.

Featuring as the squad’s premier rim protector, Ewodo leads all her teammates in blocks, with 33, as well as rebounds, with a total of 107.

Together, these two tend to be at the top of opponents’ game plan as they play such a crucial part on the team this season.

In terms of conference performance, UC Riverside finished as a middle of the table team in Big West standings last year; ending their campaign with a 6-10 overall record in conference play, good enough for the sixth seed in the playoffs.

However, they did perform very well during the postseason, making it as far as the semifinal stage; ultimately giving the No. 1 overall seed, UC Davis, a nail biter of a game after falling just short by a final score of 46-49.

As far as this young year goes, their 0-1 start places them in sixth place once again.

Expectations are high however, as a better league finish can set up yet another surprising playoff run for the Highlanders.

Next up on UC Riverside’s schedule is another Big West bout, this time against Long Beach State, who is 3-10 on the year.

This will be Long Beach State’s first Big West matchup, but the Highlanders should have a slight upper hand entering this one.  

UC Riverside hosts Long Beach State this Thursday, January 10th, in the SRC Arena at 7 p.m.

UC Davis (1-0, 9-5)

They’re the two-time defending regular season Big West champs. They’ve lost just four regular season Big West games in the last two years. They’ve got the fifth-leading scorer in the nation. They’ve won six games in a row.

The UC Davis women’s basketball team is the team to beat in the Big West. That’s been the case for a couple of years, and a slow Aggie start isn’t enough to change that this year.

UCD, now 9-5 and 1-0 in the Big West after beating UC Riverside, started this season 0-3. That mark included a blowout loss to then-no. 7 ranked Stanford and tough losses to Pacific and Portland State.

That start seems to be in the past now for head coach Jennifer Gross’s squad.

The eighth-year coach has guided her team and steadied the ship, even despite some key graduations from last year’s group.

On the court, the turnaround has largely relied on the back of Morgan Bertsch, a 6’ 4” senior forward who’s fifth in the NCAA, is the leading scorer in UC Davis program history.

As Bertsch goes, so does the Aggie’s offense. That hasn’t been a problem considering the senior’s production, but it gives opponents an obvious point to focus on.

Point guard Kourtney Eaton has been the woman in charge of feeding Bertsch, a job the four-year starter and the program’s all-time assist leader has performed capably with 5.1 assists per game. Junior forward Nina Bessolo works as Bertsch’s scoring complement with 9.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per game while sophomore Cierra Hall leads the team with 6.9 rebounds per game.

Compared to the rest of the Big West, the Aggies love the three-ball. UCD has put up 333 threes so far this season, more than any other rival school. Only UCSB comes close with 331, and the Gauchos’ 26.1 percent mark from deep pales in comparison to UCD’s 32.4 percent.

All that shooting and all those points – the Aggies are second in the Big West in points per game at 71.4 – hasn’t come at the expense of their defense. UCD has given up just 62.5 points per game, again second in the conference, and are holding opponents to a Big West-worst 36.5 points per game.

UC Davis is rolling on both ends of the court right now as they begin to defend their crown again. It’s hard to bet against them.

Big West Prediction: UC Davis (Hard to bet against the champs when they’ve got the best scorer and maybe the best defense).

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