It seems counterintuitive that in the depths of January, Autumn’s time has come.
After a slow season start while adapting to her first full year playing with the team after an injury-induced redshirt season last year, junior forward Autumn Nichols has begun to make a major difference. In her last four games, she has averaged nine points per game and is shooting 61.5 percent from the floor while playing a key role for the Gauchos.
“She needs to continue to do what she’s been doing. I think part of [what she’s done this year] is she’s just hung in there [even with] a variety of injuries,” Head Coach Mark French said. “I think that’s why she’s been so successful – she hasn’t given up.”
Last season, a torn MCL(metacarpal ligament) kept Nichols from contributing during her first year with the team out of Cowley County Community College in Kansas. This year, while her knee is better, a variety of minor injuries have plagued her and made her time in the low post all the more difficult.
Her injuries this season include a sore back, bad tendonitis and continued pain in her knee, but it is hard to tell by the way she’s been playing over the past four games.
“[Autumn has] just had a lot of things that just kind of nitpick at her all the time and she’s been really tough to just hang in there,” French said. “She’s stayed in practice and kept getting repetitions [during] her first year in terms of developing in our system and understanding what we need her to do.
Standing 6’2”, Nichols role on the team is to fill the low post, helping take the pressure off forwards Kristen Mann, Kate Bauman and Kat Suderman.
“We would like to not always have Kristen Mann guard the biggest, and best, and strongest player on the other team,” French said. “Although Kristen is a fine defender, that concerns us for foul trouble, and it could tire her out a little bit more than if she had someone a little less talented to guard. We really need Autumn in those areas.
As she continues to battle through her enduring injuries, Nichols will take the court later this week (most likely in the starting lineup) against Northridge tonight and Pacific Saturday both at 7 p.m. as the Gauchos (7-7, 4-1 Big West) sit a half a game out of first place.
Tonight Santa Barbara will invade Northridge (7-6, 3-3 Big West) in the sequel to one of their defining moments in last year’s fruitful season.
“The Northridge game last year, when we beat them down at their place by one, was the pivotal game in our entire season. They were in last place in the Big West at that time and they led us the entire game and ended up losing [even when they] had a wide open three at the buzzer,” French said. “They absolutely deserved to win that game and I believe that game turned us from just a talented underachieving team to eventually having a lot of fun with UConn in the Sweet 16.”
The showdown with Big West-rival Pacific on Saturday has personal significance for French, where he coached for nine years.
However, after losing four out of five starters from last season, Pacific has fallen from their position as one of the best in the Big West to a record of 4-9 (2-4 Big West), which includes a duo of games where they lost by 50-plus points to Duke and Stanford.
“[Pacific] lost a lot of its players; but I’m sure it will be a real competitive game and Northridge gave us a real competitive game last year. I’m excited to see how aggressive they will come out to beat us, like always,” freshman guard Sha’Rae Gibbons said. “But I think this week’s games will go really well for us.”