Expect a good old-fashioned showdown in SLO town as the Gauchos (5-7 overall, 3-1 in the Big West) prepare to take on Cal Poly (7-4, 2-2 Big West) tonight at 7.
The Big West rivals will face off in the middle of one of the most unpredictable season starts in recent years: Talk about a mish-mash.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of close games, and I think there’s a lot of teams that legitimately feel like this is the year they’re going to get UCSB,” Head Coach Mark French said. “Maybe they will and maybe they won’t: that’ll be the fun part.”
Cal Poly shocked Big West patrons by knocking off Big West powerhouse Idaho (7-5, 2-1 Big West) in its third league game, then turned around and lost to conference sophomores, and the worst team in the Big West last season, Utah State (6-6, 1-2 Big West).
On the home front, UCSB topped Utah State on Jan. 6,, despite dressing only seven players while senior forwards Kristen Mann (leading scorer and rebounder, 21 ppg and 8.9 rpg) and Brandy Richardson remained on the bench. Even with the return of Mann and Richardson to the hardwood on Saturday, the Gauchos came out flat against Idaho. The Vandals are the only Big West team to beat the Gauchos in the past two years, scoring the first 11 points of that game en route to a strong victory.
“I respect everybody in the Big West; everyone plays hard, especially when they see us. Everyone is competitive,” senior guard Mia Fisher said. “[The game against Cal Poly] is going to be another dog fight, I’m sure.”
Utah State Head Coach Raegan Pebley has remained adamant that anyone in the Big West could win any given game. As UCSB heads into game five in conference play, Pebley is starting to look pretty smart, even with her team near the bottom of the standings.
No undefeated team remains in the Big West as the Gauchos, Northridge and Long Beach currently sit atop the rankings, all posting 3-1 conference records. The next four teams, however, are nipping at the chart-toppers’ ankles with two wins apiece – not the least of which is Cal Poly.
“Hopefully we’ve learned that we have to come out strong in the first half, especially against this team because they’re capable of a great game,” junior guard Karena Bonds said. “We have to get their confidence down and our confidence up.”
Cal Poly has enjoyed one of the best starts in recent years, but thus far lacks both consistency and superstar talent. When Cal Poly upset Idaho, the leading scorer had just 14 points while Idaho’s junior forward Emily Faurholt posted 26 during the contest.
The Mustangs also return 11 players from last season along with four starters, but boast no Big West standouts. Senior post Katy Paterson is Cal Poly’s leading scorer, yet has averaged only 10.8 points per game this season.
“Their biggest weapon is their attitude and the feeling that they’re playing really well right now,” French said. “[But] they’ve been on real roller coaster, I’m sure, [after beating Idaho and losing to Utah State].”
UCSB, on the other hand, is experiencing exactly the opposite problem as the Mustangs. Mann has posted four double-doubles in a row and is the country’s seventh leading scorer, yet the Gauchos are still on a two-game slide. The only other player wearing a Santa Barbara jersey who’s averaging double digits in scoring is Fisher, who has put up 13.5 points per game.
“I think [our] attitude, right now, is really important about how we view the fact that we’ve lost a lot more games than we’ve ever lost in the recent 10 or 12 years,” French said. “How we handle [this situation] has a lot to do with [whether or not] are we going to be as good as we can be in March and April or are we just going to be depressed and sad. I’m confident that we’ll make the right choice there.”