Last season, the UC Riverside Highlanders’ run for their third consecutive Big West conference tournament championship ended in the semifinals in a 63-53 loss to #2 seed UC Davis. During the preseason, Riverside was predicted to finish first in the conference, reflecting the year before, when they won 20 games and made the NCAA tournament.
However, the Highlanders lost 6-1 forward Kemie Nkele after she tore her ACL against Kansas before the regular season. Nkele was a frontrunner for Big West Player of the Year, and losing her all but guaranteed a shorter season for the Highlanders.
With Nkele healthy again, the Highlanders were once again the preseason favorites this year in the media and conference coaches polls. But they are only 4-8, coming off a 47-40 loss to UCSB on Sunday at the Thunderdome, giving them a 1-1 conference record. Their first conference win came against Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
“They voted us number one, but that’s not realistic at all. We’re missing two shooters from last year,” Head Coach John Margaritis said. “We’re not the same team. We’re not as good as we need to be right now.”
The team has lost three of their four key perimeter players from last season. Guard Vanessa Campillo graduated after hitting 19 threes and averaging 3.8 points per game coming off the bench. Forward Amber Cox, who started in 15 of 21 games and averaged 7.1 points per game, is out indefinitely for personal reasons. Last season’s Big West Honorable Mention winner Brittany Waddell will miss this season after injuring her knee. Waddell averaged 14 points per game in the Big West Tournament and led the team with 55 three-point field goals.
With two key seniors now unable to play, the once-young team that earned two consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament in 2006 and 2007 might be running out of steam.
“We have five seniors. We’re not rebuilding, this is what we have,” Margaritis said. “There are moments where I think that we have the potential to be good, but I don’t think that right now.”
The 50-47 preseason upset over #16 Vanderbilt could be considered one of those moments. Nkele led the team with a game-high-tying 17 points and eight boards on .615 shooting. The performance earned her a second Big West Player of the Week honors, her eighth of her career.
“I usually set my goals high but this year, because last year was taken from me, this year will be all out every game every second,” Nkele said to the Press-Enterprise. “I’m so anxious to start playing … I feel it’s all or nothing. I didn’t feel that way so much last year. Knowing this is my last year, regardless of what happens, I see it in a different light.”
With a big victory against a solid top-25 team but a losing record, it is difficult to predict how Riverside will fare in the Big West. After beating Vanderbilt, the team then lost four games in a row, including a 68-45 loss to Arizona State, who was #22 in the nation at the time.
The Highlanders ended their losing skid with a 72-65 home win over Yale on Dec. 30 in Riverside. Riverside is 2-0 at home but holds a 1-7 road record.
“The conference is really strong,” Margaritis said. “Santa Barbara is really strong. And you can’t forget Davis. They’re damn good – and young. You know how all of us can be really good [at times] but can’t sustain it? Without consistency, playing good doesn’t mean anything.”
According to Margaritis, the team is only seven players deep after losing Cox and Waddel. After three games, he was forced to bring junior guard Jessie Schmuckal, who is averaging 6 points per game.
Nkele leads the team with 16.4 points per game, hitting 23 three-pointers so far in the short season and shooting .324[[nf]] as a post player from behind the arc. She also leads the team in rebounds, averaging 7.9 per game. Senior guard Seyram Gbewonyo, who hit 20 threes last season and was also predicted to make the All Big West squad this year, is the team’s second leading scorer, averaging 9.9 points per game. Senior Roney Friend, who earned an All-Big West Honorable Mention last year, averages 8.6 points per gallon and leads the team in blocks. Along with Gbewonyo’s 15, Friend had a season high of 17 in the Highlander’s win over Yale.
At 6-2, senior Tainoisouti Lott provides the Highlanders with some more height in the paint. Averaging 5.7 rpg, she is the team’s second-leading rebounder, posting a season high of 15 in a 52-54 loss to San Diego State on Dec. 4. Senior guard Chanel Foster is the team’s assist leader, tallying 2.7 per game.
Riverside will play their next game at the Riverside Student Recreation Center against UC Davis in a rematch of last season’s Big West Semifinals on Jan. 8. They follow that game with a 5 p.m. home matchup against Pacific on Jan. 10.
“On paper, you can manipulate the numbers any way you want,” Margaritis said. “But if you look at the way we’re playing, we’re not doing as well. We need to take it one game at a time. We need to improve our consistency and try to compete every night.”