For 0-2 Utah State, timing couldn’t be worse for the eight-consecutive Big West champion Gauchos to come to town.
The UCSB women’s basketball team travels to Logan, Utah tonight at 7 to play the Aggies.
The Aggies have a women’s basketball team for the first time since 1987, after state budget cuts forced them to drop their women’s basketball program. The team hired Head Coach Raegan Pebley in May 2002, and she has rebuilt the program from the ground up.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Pebley said. “It hasn’t been challenging, but a lot of fun.”
Pebley, a former WNBA player, and the Aggies have struggled in their first season, posting an 0-9 record coming into tonight’s game. Utah State has nine freshmen on the roster and is the fourth youngest team in the nation. Hosting a Gaucho team that has been to the tournament seven consecutive times makes the matchup seem like David versus Goliath.
Utah State has struggled tremendously, offensively shooting .350 percent from the field, being eighth in the Big West and at or near the bottom of every statistical category in the conference. The Aggies have been outscored by an average of 18.7 points per game and are coming off of a 62-51 loss to Idaho on Jan. 3. Despite the rough start to the season, Utah State has made strides.
“Where we’ve made probably the biggest strides is in trying to combine a defensive and an offensive end together and not just playing at one end of the court,” Pebley said.
The team has found one bright spot in 6’3″ sophomore center Ali Aird, who has averaged 13.2 points and six rebounds per game since transferring from Salt Lake Community College. The Aggie offense isn’t surrounded around one player, though.
“We’re a fairly balanced team, and this team takes pride in that,” Pebley said. “We’re not like an Idaho with two players who are averaging two points or more or a Santa Barbara where there are Kodak All-Americans.”
The Gauchos enter the matchup holding opponents to a conference-best 62.9 points per game and are third in the conference in scoring output at 64.3 points per game. Santa Barbara is coming off of a 70-44 throttling of Irvine on Jan. 5 at the Thunderdome. Senior guard Lisa Willett converted four three-pointers and scored a career-high 20 points, and junior guard Mia Fisher added 12 points.
“Santa Barbara, year in and year out, is one of the most underrated teams in the country,” Pebley said. “They are one of the best-coached teams in the country. Mark French and his staff are overqualified – they’re so good and our kids are looking forward to the opportunity to play against a team like that.”
UCSB will then travel to Moscow, Idaho to play Idaho, a team Utah State has already lost to, on Saturday. Idaho is unbeaten so far in conference play, and features the top two scorers in the Big West in Emily Faurholt (24.9 ppg) and Leilani Mitchell (17.0 ppg).
But before UCSB looks ahead toward Idaho, they have to face a young and hungry Utah State looking for an upset.