It’s a new season and along with it come new goals and expectations for the UCSB women’s basketball team. Last year’s Big West conference champions tip their season off Friday, Nov. 18, in Michigan against last year’s national runner-up, #10 Michigan State.
The matchup against the Spartans will test one of Santa Barbara’s weaknesses that has already been exposed in a 74-72 edging against Bakersfield: the zone defense. Bakersfield forced the Gauchos to turn the ball over 34 times, and Michigan boasts a much more athletic team than Bakersfield.
“[Bakersfield] exposed a huge weakness for us,” Head Coach Mark French said.
The game will also put Santa Barbara’s streak of 11 consecutive season-opener wins to the test.
“I think that there is always pressure at this level of Division I play,” French said. “I think a lot of this pressure, or, as I like to call it, motivation, to do well comes from within.”
Also on the line this season is the unprecedented streak of 10 straight Big West Conference championships and nine straight trips to the NCAA tournament – a feat that has made Gaucho basketball synonymous with victory at UCSB.
“This team has a lot of pride and wants to continue that tradition of greatness,” French said. “I think it’s great to be in a situation where the pressure is to uphold a great tradition.”
The Gauchos will be without last year’s star and All-American candidate forward Kristin Mann, who was a first-round draft pick for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx.
“I know it’s an old coaching cliché, but I’m going to say it anyways,” French said. “You don’t really replace someone like Kristin Mann.”
While the Gauchos won’t be able to rewind the clock and bring Mann back, they can look forward to contributions from returning players and some new faces. Freshmen guards Whitney Warren and LaShay Fears will likely start for Santa Barbara this season and sophomore forward Jenna Green is returning from a knee injury that cut her season short last year.
“We’re certainly excited about having Jenna Green back,” French said. “I don’t think that there’s anybody in the country who won’t have to double [Green].”
French and the Gauchos will use the beginning of the season to test themselves against top teams like #10 Michigan State, Louisville, UCLA and Arizona.
“We don’t make our schedule so we can go out there and get easy wins, otherwise we wouldn’t have our first game against Michigan State,” French said. “We are really going to test ourselves against Michigan State. You always want to play well all season, but when we really want to be a great team is in March. That’s when every team is at their best.”
French and his team are confident that, unless the injury bug bites hard, there won’t be much that stands in the way of Santa Barbara from extending its streak to 11 conference championships and 10 trips to the NCAA tournament in March.
“You know there are a lot of things like injuries that you just can’t control,” French said. “If we stay healthy, we’ll be a great team come March.”