Just over two decades ago, the UCSB women’s basketball program opened the page on a new era with the hiring of Head Coach Mark French. Since his return to his alma mater, he has run a program that has come to be synonymous with excellence.
The Gauchos have won 11 Big West regular season titles in the last 12 years. In the French era, Santa Barbara has a record of 422-198. This year, with a 4-0 start to Big West play, UCSB is on track to put a 12th trophy in its case.
Santa Barbara certainly has no lack of talent this year, and the team has outscored conference opponents by an average of 20 points a game. The team’s scoring output leads the league with a balanced attack that has the top four scorers on the team averaging within two points of each other. Santa Barbara also leads the league in assists and assist to turnover ratio.
Junior center Kat Suderman has led the Big West charge for the Gauchos, and is sixth in the league with 15.8 this season in conference points per game. Suderman has exceeded every expectation in her role filling in for senior center Jenna Green who is medically redshirting this season due to back spasms. Green has been the team’s MVP the last two years, and has been a perennial fixture at the top of the Big West statistics. The loss of Green was a big blow to the Gauchos, but Suderman has continued the Gaucho tradition of having a big presence down low. Suderman currently leads the league in blocks, and is seventh in rebounding. Her role has become increasingly important in the Gauchos’ rotation, and her presence on the court automatically forces opponents to pack the key and open up the outside for the Gaucho shooters.
“Losing Jenna was a big shot for us, but she still has a presence on the sideline, getting involved at time-outs and in the locker room,” French said. “But of course I think Kat has a done a great job. She came back really quickly, especially considering she’s spent the last two years redshirting and it’s been that long since she was in a game competitively. We have seen the team already adjusting and looking for her more. I think that Kat is already scoring as much as she can without getting attacked by the opposing defense; we need to take advantage of that fact with our outside shooting.”
Shooting is something the Gaucho guards are certainly capable of doing. Senior Jessica Wilson leads the Gauchos in overall scoring output, averaging 11.5 overall points per game this season. Fellow senior Chisa Ononiwu follows closely with 9.6 per game, and both players have shown that they can find space and score at will. Junior point guard Lauren Pedersen has been stellar in her first year as a starter, and she leads the league in assists with 3.2 per game. Sophomore guard Meagan Williams has shot lights out so far for UCSB, and is fifth in the conference with a 65 percent success rate in the early going of the season.
Offense aside, the Santa Barbara defense has been rock-solid this year. The Gauchos have the highest scoring margin in the league. Their defensive success can be credited to an overwhelming style of play that has the team running successful presses and fluidly shifting double-teams. The aggression on the defensive end has led Santa Barbara to the top of the league in both blocked shots and turnover margin, and the team is second in steals. Wilson leads the Gauchos with 1.8 steals per game.
“It’s really the tradition of this program to come out aggressively on the defensive end of the court,” French said. “Putting forth an enormous amount of effort on defense is something I stress constantly. Sometimes we need to pack into the key and protect the inside shot, but that’s not really how we want to play. When we’ve had our great defensive games, we have always played a very quick, overwhelming style. We have to keep this up if we want to keep succeeding.”
Putting forth a strong effort has been the biggest struggle for Santa Barbara this season. The Gauchos have had some excellent victories, but there has been an unsettling trend of starting games stale with this squad. With the Big West containing some of the strongest teams in recent years, UCSB cannot afford to give up games by playing flat. With the amount of talent in the Santa Barbara locker room this year, it would be a major disappointment if the Gauchos fall in the standings due to lackluster effort.
“It’s my 28th year as a Division 1A head coach, and I’ve never met a team that could simply turn it on whenever they wanted to,” French said. “There are other teams in the Big West that will consistently keep getting better as the season goes on, and we have to work to keep moving forward. One of these nights we’ll be waiting to turn on our game, and by the time we do it will be way too late. It’s going to take a lot more effort [to win a championship], and everyone needs to suck it up and start working hard every day.”
As it stands, the Gauchos are in an excellent position to make some real moves in the Big West this season. Led by the conference’s most successful coach, the team doesn’t have to worry about inexperienced coaching decisions in the season’s toughest games. With some of the league’s most dominant players, Santa Barbara will have no problem stacking up with every team in the Big West.