The UCSB women’s basketball team has had a perfect season thus far, but tonight that record will be put to the test against a team that has been perfect against Santa Barbara.
This evening, UC Riverside (7-10, 5-1 Big West) comes into town to face the unbeaten Gauchos (12-6, 7-0 Big West) in what is the biggest Big West showdown of the year. The two teams have again proven to be the conference elite, and they are the only teams left with a winning league record. As such, tonight’s match will go a long way towards determining the league champion, a title the Gauchos desperately want back. Last year, Riverside stole the conference championship away from a Gaucho team that faded towards the end of the season.
Both teams have been forced to medically redshirt their star players this season, but the Highlanders have seemingly come off worse. Senior center Kemie Nkele, who led the team last year in scoring and rebounding, has been forced to sit on the sideline with a knee injury. The 2006-2007 Big West Player of the Year, Nkele was the go-to option for UCR, and her loss has left a major void in their offense. Without Nkele, junior guard Seyram Gbewonyo is the only Highlander averaging double digits at 13.5 points per night. Overall, the Highlanders are not the scoring threat they were a year ago, and with a 62.4 points per game average, the Riverside offense is ranked a paltry seventh in the Big West.
The Gauchos have been without the services of senior center Jenna Green for most of the season, and losing the perennial team MVP was initially a tough loss for the team. However, with 18 games under their belt and Green’s presence still felt from the sideline, the team has bounced back solidly. Junior center Kat Suderman has filled Green’s role tremendously, and she leads the team in Big West play with 14 points a game. Head Coach Mark French has said that Suderman is doing such a solid job scoring that he’s not sure how she can throw down more, but her average just keeps increasing.
On the outside, senior guard Jessica Wilson has proved that she is the Gauchos’ best offensive threat. Just behind Suderman with 13.7 points per game in conference play, Wilson has the ability to score at will from anywhere on the court. Along with her shooting prowess, Wilson leads the team with seven rebounds per game.
The defensive end has long been Riverside’s bread and butter, and this season has been no different. The Highlanders lead the league in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 57.0 points a night. Tonight, Riverside will have to slow down the potent UCSB offense if they want a chance to win, and they will be pushing for a low-scoring game.
However, if UCR wants to win, they will have to score as well, and the UCSB defense has been extremely tough to beat. The Gauchos give up just a third of a point more than Riverside, but are superior in field goal defense and turnover margin. The Gaucho defense has been even hotter in the last two weeks and has not given up more than 60 points in their last four contests. Holding their opponents to just 56.8 points per game in that stretch, the team has kept competitors to under 36 percent shooting.
Tonight’s game has major implications for the conference title; at this point these two teams are the only ones with a chance. With both teams playing solid defense, someone will have to find the ability to score, and Santa Barbara comes into the match with a much deeper roster. That being said, Riverside has been highly successful against UCSB in recent memory, and they will certainly bring their best game tonight.
Tonight’s tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. in the Thunderdome.