The Riverside women’s basketball team entered the 2005-06 season as the third youngest team in the nation – as an afterthought in the Big West Conference. By the end of the season, the Highlanders had won their first Big West Tournament title and made their first trip to the NCAA Tournament – and, in the process, set themselves up to be the team to beat in the Big West Conference for the 2006-07 season.

The Highlanders (9-7 overall, 3-1 in the Big West) were picked to finish first in the Big West in the preseason coaches poll and second in the media poll. UCR received the most first place votes in both polls, but with increased expectations, the team will face a new level of pressure as it attempts to defend its conference crown.

“[Winning the Big West] definitely added pressure,” Head Coach John Margaritis said. “It’s all in how we handle it that determines how we do. I love the team I have this year. In every interaction we have, I see what quality people we are.”

Margaritis took over as head coach in 2004 on the heels of the team’s worst season in 29 years. In just two years, Margaritis took a team that went 7-21 the year before he arrived to being NCAA Tournament competitors. The Highlanders were the youngest team in the 2006 NCAA Tournament and are almost as young this year, as the current roster features three freshmen, eight sophomores and three juniors.

Last season’s team showed its inexperience early and often, as the Highlanders started the 2005-2006 season 7-14. However, from that point on, UCR became virtually unbeatable. The Highlanders closed out the regular season by winning six games in a row, followed by two conference tournament wins to put Riverside in the Big West title game. A narrow 59-58 victory over UCSB ended the Gauchos’ streak of nine straight Big West Tournament titles and made UCR the lowest seeded team to ever win the tournament.

After their remarkable run to end the Big West season, the Highlanders finally fell victim to some bad luck when they were matched up against #1 North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. UCR lost 75-51, but the team drew praise from both the media and UNC for its heart and hard-nosed style of play.

“I didn’t see any fright in their eyes like I usually see in other teams’ eyes,” UNC All-American guard Ivory Latta said.

Last season’s experiences have only made the Highlanders more formidable as they prepare for what looks to be a very bright future. The team returns with 10 players from last season’s squad, including all five of its starters and its top seven scorers. The Highlanders have the talent and experience to defend their title, but this season, they will not be able to sneak up on anyone.

“It’s a little different than last year,” sophomore guard Seyram Gbewonyo said. “We have to improve and execute and compete better than last year.”

After last season’s successes, the Highlanders challenged themselves with a difficult nonconference schedule that included games against Wisconsin (12-4), Oklahoma State (12-1), San Diego (10-3) and UCLA (8-9). UCR finished its nonconference schedule at 6-6, but despite the disappointing record, the Highlanders were the only Big West team with a .500 winning percentage coming into Big West play.

UCR opened its Big West schedule on Dec. 28, with a title-game rematch at home against UCSB. Led by junior forward Kemie Nkele, the Highlanders won 70-57 to hand UCSB its first loss in a conference opener in 18 years. Four UCR players finished in double digits in points, and the Highlanders used 10 blocked shots to hold the Gauchos to 27.9 percent shooting from the field.

Nkele – a two-time All-Big West selection – is the undisputed leader of the UCR squad. At 6’1″, she has the size to dominate inside and the game to score from anywhere on the court. In addition to averaging 15.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game this season, Nkele leads the conference in blocked shots with 2.40 per game and is third in three-point field goal percentage. The Highlanders complement Nkele with a balanced scoring attack that features five other players who average over six points per game.

Riverside came out of nowhere to win last season’s Big West Tournament, but it does not appear to have been a fluke. With their young but experienced roster and a strong coaching staff, the Highlanders appear poised to take over as the perennial power in the Big West.