The UCSB women’s basketball team enters the year with eight consecutive Big West conference titles and seven consecutive berths to the NCAA Tournament to boast. The team also returns four starters and seven players from a season ago, as well as women’s John R. Wooden Award candidate Lindsay Taylor. Expectations are high for the 2003-04 team, but the team shows no signs of pressure.

“I think their was more pressure 15 or 16 years ago when we were struggling to win five and six games,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said. “We have some good teams in the conference this year that will be aiming for us, but we’ve been through it before.”

Juniors forward Kristen Mann, forward Brandy Richardson and guard Mia Fisher return from last year’s starting lineup along with Big West Player of the Year Lindsay Taylor. Senior guard April McDivitt enters the starting lineup, replacing three year starter Jess Hansen. McDivitt transferred from perennial power Tennessee and provides the Gauchos with an up tempo style of play as well as NCAA Tournament experience.

Senior forward Lisa Willett has started the first two games for the Gauchos, averaging 12 points and 4 rebounds per game. Willett emerged as a top offensive weapon last season when Kristen Mann went down to injury, averaging a career-best 8.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Willet and Taylor have played in 95 games together over the last three seasons and provide leadership and tournament experience to Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara also boasts the best depth of any team in the Big West. Freshmen guard Erin O’Bryan and forward Jenna Green have already seen significant playing time early in the 2003 season. At 6’4, Green adds to the tremendous height of the Gaucho front court. Green scored seven points and grabbed six boards, earning a start in her first game at UCSB. O’Bryan earned Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year honors her senior season at Highland High School in Gilbert, Ariz., averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 assists, 5 rebounds and 4.1 steals per game. O’Bryan has scored points in each of Santa Barbara’s first two games.

Junior transfers forwards Autumn Nichols and Kate Bauman, will also provide the Gauchos with considerable size in the paint. Nichols scored 10 points and grabbed six boards in Santa Barbara’s 82-44 first round women’s national invitational tournament win over San Diego. Bauman added three points and one rebound in the win, but suffered a right ankle sprain while scrambling for a loose ball in the first half. Her status remains uncertain.

Guards sophomore Karena Bonds and junior Roshawn Perkins have also seen more minutes early in the season. Bonds scored eight points in the opening game of the year and will continue to provide valuable minutes off the bench.

With McDivitt now running the point, the Gauchos will become a more up-tempo team than in years past.

“We lose Jess Hansen, who was a great player for us, but April should step right into the lineup and do well,” French said. “April’s a different kind of player than Jess was. We’ll probably run the break a little more this season.”

Even though Santa Barbara expects to run more this year, it doesn’t mean they will forget the reigning Big West Player of the Year, Lindsay Taylor.

“Lindsay is still going to be a big part of the offense again,” French said. “She has been hurt for a lot of the summer and that slowed down her training, so it may take her a few games to get back to form.”

Taylor finished last season with career highs in points (16.3 per game) and rebounds (7.5 per game) and is a candidate for the John R. Wooden Award, given to the nation’s best player at an institution of higher education who has proven to her university that she is making progress toward graduation and maintaining a cumulative 2.0 GPA. Taylor and Mann represented Team USA at the FIBA World Championship for Young Women over the summer, and helped the United States take home gold.

Mann has already made her mark on the 2003-04 season, leading the Gauchos in points in the teams first two games. Mann finished last season with a career-high 14.2 points per game, despite missing 12 games to injury, and was placed on the All-Big West First Team.

Santa Barbara is scheduled to play six teams in the preseason top 25, as well as a full slate of conference games against an improving Big West conference.

If the Gauchos make it to their eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament, they will play their first two games at the Thunderdome, a distinct advantage for a team that has ended their last three seasons on the road.

“Not having to travel to Lubbock and playing the first two rounds in the Thunderdome is a huge advantage for our team,” French said.