The UCSB women’s basketball team will look to pull off a major upset on Sunday in the first round of the NCAA tournament when the team takes on Baylor, the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
The Baylor Bears are an undefeated 37-0 and have beaten some of the best teams in the country, including perennial powerhouses UConn and Stanford. With their 14th NCAA appearance, No. 16 Santa Barbara is 17-15 on the season, having won nine of its last 11 games and the past four in a row to take the Big West championship crown.
“I always go in expecting to win,” Mitchell said. “It’s going to take an A+ game and a lot of other variables to fall into place for us, but you don’t just play to play and I never want the kids to go in with anything less than the mindset that we’re going to play our very best game.”
One Baylor player in particular may prove to be an incredible matchup problem for UCSB, and she also happens to be regarded as one of the best players in the women’s collegiate game today: junior center Brittney Griner. Griner has averaged 9.4 rebounds and 23.3 points per game throughout the season, the latter of which is good enough for sixth-best in the country, and also tops the nation with 5.1 blocks per game.
“We’ll watch some films of games that maybe teams held her below thirty,” Mitchell said. “That might give us an idea of some things we can do, but we’re so undersized that it’s going to take a bit of creativity to see if we can slow her down.”
At 6’8’’, Griner will have a seven-inch height advantage over UCSB junior center Kirsten Tilleman, who was named MVP of the Big West tournament with her 16-point, 11-rebound effort in the championship. Tilleman ranks second in the Big West in rebounds with 8.4 per game.
“People have called me an undersized post player ever since I came to college, but I think anyone’s undersized compared to her,” Tilleman said. “It’s funny because coach [once] asked me if I would ever want to guard her and I was like, ‘Yeah, why not?’ You have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
With Griner leading the way, the Bears have been unstoppable offensively, averaging 78.8 points per game while shooting a nation-best 49 percent from the field. On the defensive end, Baylor dominates too, grabbing 45.7 boards and holding teams to 30.7 percent shooting.
“They’re going to create some different problems with their athleticism,” Mitchell said. “They pick the ball up full court and wear you down. They just keep bringing athletes at you.”
Another key match-up will be the point guard position. Senior guard Emilie Johnson, the leading scorer for the Gauchos averaging 9.8 points per game, will face off against one of the best point guards in the nation, sophomore Odyssey Sims. Sims averages 14.8 points per game.
“[We have to] limit the role players because we know [Griner’s] going to make a difference,” Johnson said. “We know she’s going to score and we know she’s going to get some blocks, but it we limit the role players, we have a chance to be in the game.”
Senior forward Kelsey Adrian’s versatility at 6’2’’ should be an area in which the Gauchos could take advantage. Adrian is the team’s leading three-point shooter at 36.8 percent, and has hit at least two three pointers in eight of the last 10 games.
“It’s about having the mentality that we deserve to be there,” Johnson said. “We earned our way just like everybody else and no matter the number in front of our name, we still put in the work and effort. We’re going to play hard and embrace the opportunity.”
Tip-off is set for 11:30 on Sunday.