Year in, year out, the UCSB women’s basketball team is routinely expected to be among the best on campus. Coming into the season, the Gauchos had run off 12 straight postseason appearances, yet a bittersweet taste remained in their mouths after dropping two straight Big West Tournament championship games to rival UC Riverside. To add insult to injury, the Highlanders stopped Santa Barbara’s streak of consecutive regular season titles at 11 last year.
The Gauchos came into the season eager to regroup, but faced a monster of a nonconference schedule in the early going. Seven of UCSB’s 13 nonconference games were played away from the Thunderdome and featured matchups against three Pac-10 schools, as well as powerhouse Maryland. Despite the daunting opponents, the squad posted a respectable 5-6 mark before Big West play began, including a heartbreaking 75-71 at the hands of the Terrapins, then ranked #3 in the land.
The challenging schedule helped prepare UCSB for the conference slate and weather the storm following senior center Jenna Green’s season-ending knee injury after the talented star appeared in only four games. Santa Barbara raced out to 11 straight wins to open the Big West season, and the team’s only blemish during the league season was a 59-56 overtime loss at the hands of UC Davis.
“I think we peaked at the right time and people were able to stay healthy, which is always a big thing, especially down the stretch,” junior guard Sha’Rae Gibbons said. “People stepped up and everyone had an opportunity throughout the year to step up and everyone improved.”
The Gauchos kept rolling into the Big West Tournament, ousting Cal Poly 77-57 in the semifinals before earning their revenge against the Aggies in a 74-59 championship game victory, sending the squad to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004-05. UCSB was able to keep pace with #4 seed Virginia until the closing minutes of the first half in the tournament’s first round before falling 86-52.
“I think it was good for [UC Riverside] to have taken the Big West title away from us for a couple of years,” former Head Coach Mark French said. “I myself responded very well to that and I think our team responded well to that. It’s a heck of a lot of fun to come out on top when something’s been taken away from you.”
The season’s success can be attributed up and down the roster, from the breakout freshman campaign of forward Ashlee Brown, the coming-out party for Gibbons and junior forward Whitney Warren to the senior leadership of senior guards Chisa Ononiwu and Big West Player of the Year Jessica Wilson. But, without a doubt, one of the greatest assets was Green’s leadership on the sideline, where she could help mentor Brown and junior forward Kat Suderman.
“I tried to work with the post players as much as I could,” Green said. “I think it was a great opportunity to watch my teammates grow. I was very proud to see where we ended up at the end of the season.”
Early in the year, the coaching staff suspended the team’s locker room use and prevented the players from wearing practice gear in response to the squad’s play on the court. The message was received and the players rewarded by being allowed to don the famous blue and gold jerseys after recommitting themselves on the defensive end. The result was another dominating year of Big West play and yet another trip to the Big Dance, making the squad the best UCSB had to offer.
“Our motto from the beginning was that ‘we’re a force when we’re together,’ and one of the things I’ll always remember about this team is that, through all the adversity we faced, a number of people stepped up and did the right thing,” French said. “They made decisions that allowed our team to be a powerful force because we were together.”