Tonight, the UCSB women’s basketball team makes its 2002-03 regular season debut and marks the first pit stop along the path towards March’s madness.

Santa Barbara goes into basketball country and tackles North Carolina State at 4 p.m. PST at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C. The Gauchos open their season in a similar position from where they left off last year; on the road and in the national spotlight. Last March, after upsetting Louisiana Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, UCSB slipped in the second round on the road and lost to the University of Texas, Austin. UCSB Head Coach Mark French realizes that for the Gauchos to be successful come tournament time this season, they must prepare in the pre-season by going on the road against national caliber teams and grabbing victories.

“I would like us to get used to the fact that we are competing at the highest level of basketball against the best teams in the country,” French said. “Simply put, we need to win big games on the road.”

The Gauchos are armed with a high-powered yet relatively limited arsenal. Santa Barbara must count on staying out of foul trouble this weekend, if it hopes to snag a win on the road. Pivotal to the team’s success will be junior center Lindsay Taylor. Taylor, the 2002 Big West Tournament MVP, played in just 16 minutes in the Gauchos’ only exhibition contest on Nov. 13 because of four early fouls.

Taylor will be matched in the trenches by N.C. State junior center Kaayla Chones, a Second Team All-ACC selection in 2002. Chones, the daughter of former NBA stud Jim Chones, comes in with the complete package. She averaged 12.3 points and 7 rebounds per contest last year and poured in 19 points in the Wolfpack’s 90-44 slashing of Stockholm Human Rights on Nov. 11.

The #25 Gauchos face a Wolfpack team that is picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year. N.C. State finished a rebuilding season with a mediocre 14-15 overall record last year, going 7-9 in the tough ACC. The Wolfpack were hampered by injuries last season and were forced to turn to their inexperienced freshmen reserves. A year later, N.C. State Head Coach Kay Yow is ready to jump back into contention for the ACC title and post-season glory after her recent induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. N.C. State is averaging over 95 points in two exhibition wins.

“N.C. State is a great program, coached by a legendary coach” French said. “We expect them to be very good. We haven’t seen much tape of them this year, so they will be new to us.”

The Gauchos hope to get sophomore forward Brandy Richardson going also. Richardson scored 13 points and tallied 13 boards, seven of them offensive, in Santa Barbara’s 66-52 win over UMB Banska Bystrica at the Thunderdome last week. French expects Richardson to possibly get off to a fast start and break through into a star this year, taking some of the pressure off Taylor in the middle. Fellow sophomore forward Kristen Mann, the 2002 Big West Freshman of the Year, joins Richardson to form a potent front court. Mann may have to handle the Wolfpack’s Carisse Moody who scored10.6 points and tallied 4.8 rebounds per game last year.

“They’re a more athletic team than we are,” Mann said. “For us to win, we’re going to have to play good defense and counter with our big three in the middle, playing zone.”