For senior forward Mekia Valentine, the UCSB women’s basketball team has been more than just a team. It has been a family. And for the Gauchos, Valentine has been more than an average player; she has been a leader and friend to all.

[media-credit name=”Daily Nexus File Photo” align=”alignright” width=”155″][/media-credit]“I think I found that I can have a family without them being legally related to me,” Valentine said. “My teammates are like my sisters, my coaches are like parents and then I have great resources that really care for me and really see me as an individual instead of just a basketball player.”

Valentine did not start her college career at UC Santa Barbara, but instead stayed close to her Greensboro, North Carolina home by enrolling at Wake Forest University. After Valentine’s sophomore season, a close friend suggested UCSB as a school that would benefit Mekia academically as well as athletically.

“She was my first recruit that we brought out here,” Head Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I feel like we were meant to be in the same spot, I think I was meant to be her coach, I think she was meant to come in my life and I’m just really thankful that it worked out the way it did.”

During her transfer season of 2008-09 at UCSB, tragedy struck as Mekia’s mother Lillian passed away from cancer. Being across the country from her home with no family here to console her, Valentine turned to UCSB for support.

“Even though my mom’s gone and I always catch myself kind of being like, ‘wow I wish my mom was here,’ she is here, just in a different way,” Valentine said. “She lives in each and every one of my friends and I could not be more blessed.”

In remembrance of her mother, Mekia recently got a tattoo of her mother’s name and the day she passed away on her wrist.

“A lot of people are curious as to why I got the day she passed away, but I really see it as that’s when she started her new life, and that’s the day I kind of started my new life too,” Valentine said. “This past game was the first game I had it out, and it meant a lot to me. I looked down at it at one point in the game, and it blows me away just to have it there and to kind of finally for once feel like I feel her with me.”

Despite her struggles, Mekia has become one of the most dominant players in the school’s history. Valentine holds the distinction as the only player ever to record a triple-double for the Gauchos, a feat she accomplished in a November victory over Northern Colorado.

A Big-West second team selection last season, Valentine is averaging 10 points per game and currently ranks second in conference with over nine rebounds per game.

“Any time you have a player that gifted athletically, it is fun to work with them as a coach,” Gottlieb said. “Another thing she brought to this program is a level of intensity and competitiveness that is really contagious to everyone else.”

Valentine’s amassed 120 blocks last season, and is well on her way to surpassing that mark this year. She currently averages 4.3 per game — the fourth-highest block average in the nation. In just a year and a half at UCSB, Valentine is already second all-time in career blocks for the Gauchos.

“As sweet and as kind of a person as she is off the court, she gets a little bit of a different personality on the court,” Gottlieb said. “I love it.”

Basketball didn’t always come easy to Valentine. She grew from 5’6” to 6’2” in one summer and struggled with her hand-eye coordination as a result of the growth spurt.

“I think I just started playing because, like most girls who are 6’2” in the seventh grade, people kind of force you to play basketball,” Valentine said. “Then I started playing and it was a lot of fun. I actually used to swim and, surprisingly, be a cheerleader, but I decided that I should focus my talents somewhere else and basketball seemed to fit really well.”

The decision to play basketball has paid off for Valentine.

“[Mekia] is like my sister. When it comes to off the court, we’re extremely tight,” senior forward Margaret Johnson said. “I don’t think you can really separate the two of us. Mekia is one of the people on the team that makes basketball very enjoyable here at UCSB. She makes everyone else more competitive. She is just another good attitude for the team.”

With her college career near its culmination, Valentine hopes to take what she has learned at UCSB and play professionally next year.

“I think she definitely has the ability to keep playing basketball professionally if that’s something that she wants to do,” Gottlieb said. “Beyond basketball I just want Mekia to feel empowered to do anything that she wants to. She has a lot of gifts to give the world.”

Valentine and the UCSB women’s basketball team hit the road this Thursday for their next Big West game against Irvine. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m.