Back-to-back Big West championships and an experienced group of returnees have propelled UC Riverside to the status of conference favorites, but a tough schedule and critical injuries could make the road to another postseason appearance its most challenging yet.

Last season the Highlanders earned their first ever 20-win season with an overall record of 21-11 and a conference record of 12-2 en route to their first regular season Big West title. After defeating UC Santa Barbara 70-67 in a nail-biting conference championship game, Riverside made its second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament where it put up an impressive showing as a #14 seed in a 57-50 first-round loss to #3 Arizona State. The Highlanders came close to upsetting the Sun Devils, holding a 15-point lead at one point, but ASU rallied with a 28-6 run in the second half to end Riverside’s hopes of becoming a Cinderella team.

The success that Riverside has had over the last two seasons has been due in large part to the efforts of a relatively young crop of players. This season the Highlanders return all 13 members of the roster from last season, only three of which are seniors. With so many returnees, the experience that Riverside has had in playing critical games down the stretch of the regular season and the postseason could be one of its most important intangibles going into Big West play.

One player that has been quintessential to the Highlanders’ achievements has been senior forward Kemie Nkele. Nkele has racked up a great deal of accolades so far in her college career, including last season’s Big West Player of the Year and Big West Tournament Most Valuable Player honors. After off-season knee surgery, Nkele returned to the team late in November and played in five games averaging a team-leading 16.2 points per game and 8.6 rebounds; it also took her no time to earn her first Big West Player of the Week award of the season, getting the honor for the week ending Dec. 2.

Nkele and Riverside received a huge blow, however, during a Dec. 16 game against Kansas when she went down with a torn ACL. The injury will cause her to miss the remainder of the season and will leave the Highlanders without their best player. At 6’1″ Nkele can play both the forward and center position and has the ability to create match-up problems for the opponent. Overcoming the loss will be a challenge for Margaritis and his coaching staff as they try to find new ways of attacking teams without their go-to player.

“I wish I could say it’s not affecting us, but it is,” Margaritis said. “It will be interesting to see who steps up. This means we have to dig in. The worst thing we can do is have a built-in excuse. It’s like two different worlds. Now we’re making plans without Kemie [Nkele] on the floor.”

While Nkele’s injury leaves Riverside without its leader, it does not mean that the Highlanders will be a pushover team in the Big West. Returning last season’s entire roster means that the team has a great deal of players in its arsenal who have factored into its past success. One of those players is junior guard Seyram Gbewonyo, who was a Big West Honorable Mention pick last season as a starter for the Highlanders, and was named by conference coaches and media as a preseason All-Conference selection. Gbewonyo came up big in the Big West championship game against Santa Barbara, scoring the game-winning jumper for UCR. Thus far on the season, Gbewonyo has been the team’s second most productive player behind Nkele, averaging 12.7 points per game and 4.5 rebounds.

Other players expected to step up for the Highlanders are junior forwards Roney Friend and Tainoisouti Lott. Friend was also a Big West Honorable Mention player last season as she started all 32 games. This season she has been the top rebounder for UCR behind Nkele, averaging 6.2 rebounds per game on top of 7.8 points. Lott has averaged 9.6 points and 5.7 rebounds so far this season, starting the majority of games as a center. Both players will likely see an increase in minutes and will have to step up their inside games offensively and defensively in order to make up for the loss of a dominant frontcourt player like Nkele.

The Highlanders entered Big West play with a nonconference record of 2-9. In addition to the injury to Nkele, UCR was also tested by what ranked the seventh toughest schedule in the nation early on. The schedule included seven opponents that have appeared in the national rankings thus far, including games against #12 California and #18 Auburn, which both resulted in losses. Riverside recorded two wins with Nkele in the lineup – a 75-65 overtime victory over Gonzaga and a 61-49 win over University of Nevada, Las Vegas the following game.

The nonconference struggles had their desired result, however, as a well-seasoned Highlanders team has come out firing in Big West action. UCR dominated their conference opener against Pacific, extending their lead throughout en route to an 83-61 victory. Gbewonyo led the way with 22 points in only 27 minutes on the floor, and Tainoisouti backed her up with 14 points and eight rebounds. The Highlanders showed off their depth as well, as 10 different players scored, with nine of them scoring five or more points.

Two nights later, the Highlanders used another big second half to put away UC Davis and improve to 2-0 in Big West games. Gbewonyo struggled from the field but still finished 11 points, to go along with an astonishing six steals. Tainoisouti picked up the scoring slack with 20 points on eight-of-nine shooting, while freshman guard Alyssa Morris was perfect from beyond the arc on the way to scoring 10 points, well above her season average of 1.5.

With the Highlanders now comfortably in the midst of their Big West schedule, the focus now turns to staying on track before a Jan. 31 showdown against the Gauchos in Santa Barbara. The game will be the first of two scheduled meetings between the teams this season, and likely the first of three meetings overall as the Highlanders and Gauchos are favored to face each other in the Big West championship game for the third straight season.