After failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament last season, UCSB women’s basketball opens up this season with a clear goal in mind.

“We are all excited for the season,” third-year Head Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “We finished strong last year, but not winning the Big West is motivation in itself to improve and win the championship this year. We have a good group with a lot of potential and our expectations are high.”

Building on their fourth-place finish in their conference last year, the Gauchos are looking to capture the Big West title this season and clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis. Led by senior center Mekia Valentine, second team all conference last season, the team was picked to finish in fourth place in a talented Big West.

“The conference is always exciting,” Valentine said. “We’re all competing for the top spot and give credit where it’s due to the top three teams in the league. Every game is a good game this year.”

Valentine, selected to the preseason first-team all-Big West, led the conference in rebounds and blocks last year for the Gauchos. UCSB was second in conference in defensive scoring last season, allowing just 60.6 points per game.

“It all starts with defense, and that leads to points in the transition game,” Valentine said. “Defense is always going to be important and we need to continue to work on that.”

The team features some new additions, such as junior guard Kelsey Adrian and sophomore Angelei Aguirre — both new additions to the Gauchos after transferring from UC Berkeley — and seven underclassmen round out the rest of the team, including three freshmen, guards Melissa Zornig and Nicole Nesbit and center Adaeze Okolie. Sophomore forward Sweets Underwood, an all-conference freshman last season, will be another key for UCSB.

“I want to play more aggressive,” Underwood said. “I have played college basketball for one year now and I need to play with more experience and maturity than I had. I need to look as if I have that one year of experience already.”

With more experience, and an offseason of hard work under their belts, the Gauchos will try to improve as a team.

“There are always skills to improve,” junior guard Emilie Johnson said. “The offseason is a time to get better and improve those skills so we can be a better team. The team flows better when we all become more skilled.”

Johnson, who finished fourth in the conference last season with 13.8 points per game, will be another veteran presence on a young team.

“There is a great team chemistry. We are like a family,” said Emilie Johnson. “Everyone is so close on and off the court. It is a fun group. When you are close off the court, it translates on the court.”

UCSB opens its season tomorrow night at 7 p.m. at the Thunderdome with an exhibition match against Monterey Bay before the regular season begins with an away game at Pepperdine on Nov. 12.