After dominating performances during the teams’ two exhibition games, the #18 UCSB women’s basketball team is ready to play for real.

The Gauchos host the University of San Diego on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Thunderdome in the first round of the Preseason Women’s National Invitational Tournament. Santa Barbara is currently riding a 23-home-game winning streak, the second longest in the nation behind top-ranked Connecticut.

UCSB enters the season with many expectations, as six different media organizations included the Gauchos in their preseason top 25. Among the six polls, the Women’s Basketball News Service ranks Santa Barbara at 10th in the nation. Coaches and media around the Big West Conference have also served notice of the Gauchos’ immense potential, as UCSB was a near unanimous pick to repeat as Big West champs.

Early indications from their exhibition performances support the lofty expectations put on the Gauchos. Santa Barbara never trailed in its 87-71 win over the Latvian Select as six players scored in double digits. Four nights later, UCSB exploded for 96 points, handily beating the National Women’s Basketball League by 57 points, as the team shot 53.6 percent from the field. In their two exhibition games, the Gauchos averaged 91.5 points per game.

San Diego returns three starters from their 13-17 team from a year ago that finished fifth in the West Coast Conferenceok. The Toreros are led by senior Marta Menuez, an All-WCC honorable mention selection from a year ago who averaged 11.6 points per game and 5.7 rebounds.

Entering her 24th season as head coach of the Toreros and 31st overall, Kathy Marpe has directed USD to two exhibition wins against non-Division I opponents this season. The Toreros defeated Point Loma Nazarene 66-51 on Nov. 1,and then UC San Diego 86-76 a week later.

The 16-team Preseason WNIT includes seven teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament a year ago, including the team that knocked the Gauchos out last season, Texas Tech. The winner of Saturday’s game will face the winner of the Utah-Southwest Missouri State matchup, played in Utah tonight. The championship game will be on Nov. 23 and the site is still to be determined.

The last time Santa Barbara played in a preseason Preseason WNIT was in 1999 when they fell to then #3 Georgia 85-65 in the championship game.

-Nexus Staff Report