The UCSB women’s basketball team will provide an alternative form of Halloween entertainment tonight as it takes the floor for the first time of the 2007-08 campaign to host an exhibition match against Vanguard.

Last year marked the first time in 11 seasons that the Gauchos did not claim the Big West regular season title, losing out on the crown to UC Riverside. UCSB fans will get their first look at the experienced squad that hopes to return to the top of the conference tonight at the Thunderdome when the Gauchos host the Lions at 7 p.m.

“[The team’s] self-picked motto this season is ‘a force when we’re together,'” Head Coach Mark French said. “So I think they expect to have great chemistry and I think we have much better talent and depth [than last season’s team]. There is a lot of competition for playing time.”

Santa Barbara finished second in the Big West last season with an overall record of 19-14 and a conference record of 10-4. The Gauchos came up short against the Highlanders in the conference tournament final and were selected to participate in the Woman’s National Invitation Tournament, where they lost to Oregon in the second round. This season both the coaches and media poll are predicting that it will once again be Riverside and UCSB occupying the one and two spots in the Big West, respectively, but Santa Barbara is hoping that its experience can propel it back to conference supremacy.

“The reason we’ll be better this season and win more games is that we have more depth and we have great senior leadership,” French said. “I think seniors always bring a certain sense of immediacy to a team and I think they’ve done really well with their leadership roles thus far.”

Leading the charge for the Gauchos is senior center Jenna Green, a two-time All-Big West First Team honoree and the team’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker from a year ago. Santa Barbara’s MVP from a year ago, Green will once again be UCSB’s most dependable player on both sides of the ball. The Gauchos also return their leading passer from last season, senior guard Jessica Wilson, whose versatility and explosiveness should prove to be an invaluable ingredient in Santa Barbara’s success. Both players were selected to the preseason All-Big West First Team.

“[Green] has been the mainstay of our program for the last several years and has a lot of experience, and Jessica Wilson is a fourth year senior,” French said. “So we have players steeped in Gaucho tradition and they’ve all done quite well.”

The Gauchos will have their first opportunity to showcase their skills when they face Vanguard in tonight’s exhibition game. The Lions have become fixtures in the National Associations of Intercollegiate Athletics Division I tournament and have posted four consecutive 30-win seasons. Tonight’s match should provide healthy competition for both the Gaucho newcomers and the seasoned veterans.

“We’ll want to get everyone lots of playing time and we want to let our freshman get good minutes,” French said. “It’s always good to play against someone and Vanguard is one of the best NAIA teams, so it will be good for us.”