As expected, last year’s version of the UCSB women’s basketball team finished its season with a Big West Tournament Championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, the fifth consecutive conference title for Santa Barbara under Head Coach Mark French. However, the manner in which the Gauchos captured the championship was anything but predictable.

Entering the off-season as heavy favorites once again, UCSB took a major blow to its title hopes when guard Erin Buescher decided to transfer due to personal reasons. Then, star recruit Syretta Coleman was arrested for shoplifting and, after a brief reinstatement, was dismissed from the team.

Meanwhile, the Gauchos who remained managed to overcome these distractions to accumulate a 7-0 conference record. But UCSB’s conference record would not remain spotless for long, as Santa Barbara dropped consecutive Big West games, leading to internal conflict and a feeling no Gaucho had felt for a number of seasons: vulnerability.

However, that would not last for long for one reason: senior forward Kayte Christensen.

Playing with a sense of urgency, Christensen steadied the Gauchos with her rock-solid play, leading Santa Barbara to its eventual conference title. In fact, while others around her struggled, Christensen enjoyed her finest season as at UCSB, averaging 13.7 points and 7.6 rebounds a game, good enough to be an All-Big West first team selection.

This year, as a senior and co-captain, Christensen has upped her play once again, pouring in 15.7 points and pulling down 8.6 boards a contest, all while shooting a career-high 59 percent. Christensen’s improved play was never more evident than in the Gauchos’ most recent game against Northridge in which she scored a career-high 36 points on 13-15 shooting, including burying 10-13 free throws, and grabbed 14 rebounds.

“It just seemed like I was shooting well and our guards got it to us,” Christensen said. “I just kept going back to the same move, my go-to move, and they never did anything to stop it. So I just kept going back to it, and amazingly I shot a great percentage. They just all went in and I shot a lot of free throws.”

The career-day also happened to be the day Christensen went over the 1,000-point mark for her career, becoming only the 16th player in UCSB history to do so. The magnitude of the accomplishment was not lost on Christensen.

“That is definitely a big honor,” she said. “I remember when Kristi [Rohr] became our all-time leading scorer. I remember all of that because I looked up to Kristi a lot.

“And I obviously I remember Nicole [Greathouse] doing it, and Erin [Buescher]. There are some great names in the top-15 people, so it’s a great honor …. It was great, my parents were there, so it was just a great day.”

But as co-captain along with senior guard Kristyn Miller, Christensen has also become a leader of this extremely young Santa Barbara squad, a role that took some getting used to, considering the overall attitude adjustment that needed to be made heading into this season.

“I think we respect each other more,” Christensen said. “There were some dominating personalities we had on our team last year, and it wasn’t always in a good manner. Some people were scared, or it embarrassed them, or it worried them, or it made them mad. When you have that all going together, it was just a mess. But I’ve never played on a team where the chemistry is as good as it is on our team [this year], and that says a lot. We’ve made a ton of progress from last year.”

A large part of that turnaround also has to do with the coaching staff, challenging Kayte to lead not only through her practice and play, but also vocally.

“Kayte has stepped up a lot more verbally,” French said. “Kayte has always been a great leader in her comfort zone leading her high school team, club team and the Gauchos by her actions, by being a truly inspirational player in practice. This year she stepped up and has been venturing out of the area that is comfortable to her and talking a lot.”

With Christensen playing at such a high level, and coming off a season in which she was an All-Big West first team selection, Kayte has emerged as a front-runner for Big West Player of the Year, an honor she deserves, according to French.

“I voted for her for Big West Player of the Year last year, so I thought she was the best player in conference last year. And I certainly think she is a better player this year than she was last year. If there is a better player in our conference than her, it will be interesting to see.”

Modest as always, Christensen shrugged off the compliment, focusing instead on helping her team achieve their goals as well as her own.

“I don’t really pay attention to that kind of stuff … I think that playing for awards, they are great honors. But I don’t ever want to feel like that’s what I’m playing for. The main purpose for me is to make sure that I get better every game for our team’s sake and for my sake because I have personal goals for after college. But I don’t ever want to define myself by awards.”

But in the meantime, she’ll have to get used to earning them.