It’s win or go home as March Madness kicks off for the UCSB women’s basketball team, which will face UC Irvine on the road tonight.
The Gauchos enter the tournament as the sixth seed, finishing at 8-8 in the Big West and 14-15 overall. The Anteaters took third at 9-7 in conference and 13-16 overall, and UCSB has yet to beat the Anteaters this season.
“It’s March Madness, so we’ll continue to let [the team] know that this is why you play and why you practice 20 hours a week,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “This is the fun part, and at the end of the day, everyone is 0-0. We expect to win.”
The number-one key for the Gauchos will be defense, and while it has been their strength all season, containing Irvine senior guard Kassandra McCalister has been a huge struggle. Although she averages 13.7 points per game (fifth in the Big West), McCalister scored 21 points in the first matchup and then single-handedly destroyed the Gauchos in Irvine when she scored a career-high 36 points.
“She’s a great player and she made a lot of tough shots [on] senior night,” Mitchell said. “Hopefully we can do some different things to slow her down. It will be a team effort.”
If UCSB can uphold its league-leading, tenacious defense that allows teams just 50.9 points per game, it will certainly have a shot at a win because Irvine’s strategy is simple: outscore its opponent. UCSB gave up a season-worst 72 points in the last matchup.
“They’re extremely athletic, and we had a lot of mistakes in the last game,” Mitchell said. “Hopefully if we can cut down on the turnovers and do the little things, we can [go] out on the road and get a win.”
In both games, the Anteaters found a weakness in the Gaucho defense, taking advantage behind the three-point arc. Against the Gauchos this season, the Anteaters shot an incredible 50.5 percent from downtown.
“We have to come out like we did [Saturday] and feel like we have nothing to lose,” senior forward Kelsey Adrian said. “We have to put it all out there and just fight. We know what kind of team we are.”
After that great win at UC Davis, there was only one key to continuing the momentum, according to senior guard Emilie Johnson: “Consistency … that’s all I have to say.”
That might sound like a cliché, but inconsistency has been a big issue for the Gauchos. Before the win at Davis, UCSB had a poor performance against Pacific. Nevertheless, the team enters the Big West tournament having won six of their last eight games.
“Hopefully we feel confident after the game at Davis,” Mitchell said. “My goal was to have our team peaking at the right time, and I’m confident we’re playing to the best of our abilities.”
Offensively, Johnson leads the team, averaging 9.4 points per game. If UCSB wants to prolong their season, other players are going to have to step up. Adrian comes off a tremendous performance at Davis, where she tallied a career-high 21 points and drained four threes, and junior forward Kirsten Tilleman, who has played well in both games against Irvine, averages 13 points and eight boards. Both players will be huge in giving the Gauchos an inside presence.
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. at the Bren Events Center.