Three weeks after its worst defensive display of the season, the UCSB women’s basketball team has a chance for vengeance.
The University of Idaho, the only team to beat Santa Barbara this season, comes to the Thunderdome tonight at 7. The timing could not be more perfect for the Gauchos, who are in the midst of a five-game winning streak and, after an inconsistent start, have finally hit their stride. Not only is the game a matchup of conference elites, but it is also Mark French’s 500th game as head coach of the team.
“We’ve taken a couple steps toward becoming the team we all think we can be,” French said. “It will be really interesting to see how much progress we have made in the last month, and Idaho will be a good measuring stick.”
But the game will not be easy for the Gauchos. Idaho boasts the nation’s leading scorer in sophomore post Emily Faurholt, who is averaging 25.6 points per game and scored 28 points the last time the two teams met. In that same game, the Vandals defeated UCSB 84-80 with the help of five three-pointers from junior guard Heather Thoelke. Idaho finished the game on an 11-4 run as the Gauchos gave up 50 points in the second half. The defeat was only Santa Barbara seventh loss to a conference opponent during the regular season since its reign of eight straight conference titles began in 1996.
“There wasn’t defense played well on either side, they just played a little better than we did,” junior forward Kristen Mann said. “We definitely have to defend their shooters,. They are very guard oriented and they all really shoot the ball really well and penetrate as well, so we’ve been working on closing out with high hands and being on balance to where we can stop the penetration.”
The Vandals have struggled since their stunning victory over the Gauchos. Idaho has lost two of its last three games, all by a margin of eight points or less. Particularly heartbreaking was a 68-65 defeat at the hands of Cal State Fullerton on Jan. 24 at home in front of 2,115 attending fans, the largest in school history.
Santa Barbara enters the contest as the hottest team in the Big West conference. The Gauchos have beaten their last three opponents by an average of 21.7 points per game and are led by reigning Big West Player of the Week Mann. The third-year star is averaging 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists in her last two contests and this season has assumed more of a leadership role.
The Gauchos feature five players who score 7 or more points per game, led by senior center Lindsay Taylor who is averaging 15.2 points per game. Santa Barbara has also stepped it up on the defensive end of the floor, holding opponents under 50 points in three of their last five games.
“I think this team needs to establish its own identity,” French said. “I think every team needs to find who we are and what is it that makes us a special Gaucho team compared to other Gaucho teams. I think that team is starting to figure that out a little bit.”