The Blue-Green Rivalry game is always an intense matchup, but this Saturday, a potential Big West title could be on the line.
The UCSB women’s basketball team is currently in a three-way tie for second place in the Big West and just one game out of first at 7-4 in conference and 11-12 overall. One of the teams the Gauchos are tied with is in fact Cal Poly, which holds an equal 7-4 league and 13-9 overall mark.
“I think at this time of year, every game is equal in importance,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “Now, we have a team that beat us pretty handily at their place, so if anything, it’s the pride thing and again, you want to win on your home court.”
Santa Barbara will enter with momentum, having won its last three games and five of its last six. Last weekend, UCSB came away with two road wins up north, defeating UC Davis 60-52 before upsetting Pacific 52-47.
Down 14 three minutes into the second half, the Gauchos used balanced offense, featuring three players in double figures, as well as its typical tenacious defense to hold the Tigers to nearly 25 points below their average and overcome the top team in the Big West.
“We have to keep doing what we’re doing,” senior forward Sweets Underwood said. “Obviously we’re doing something right, but we’re still humble. We’re not getting too excited and losing our focus.”
After the pair of victories, Underwood was named the Big West Player of the Week for the fourth time this season. She averaged a double-double in the road wins with 14.5 points and 14 rebounds, including a career-high 16 rebounds against Pacific.
“It’s not about me; it’s a team thing,” Underwood said. “I think when we have individual awards, it’s a reflection of our team and our coaching staff and the hard work and effort we’ve put in as a whole.”
While UCSB holds an incredible 7-4 record away from home, Santa Barbara will have to find a way to win in the Thunderdome. The Gauchos are only 3-6 at home, but will have the opportunity to put back-to-back home wins together for the first time this season.
“I think that’s been the million dollar question with this team,” junior guard Nicole Nesbit said. “We have to bring a lot of energy because when we go into away gyms, that’s already manifested itself. Of course, [the energy is] going against us and for some reason, we like that. But, I think it’s going to be fun playing in our house and it’s a big rivalry game, so it’ll be a fun Saturday.”
However, UCSB’s last game against Cal Poly wasn’t fun for the Gauchos. A weak outing for Santa Barbara resulted in a 66-47 loss in San Luis Obispo. UCSB was unable to stop the Mustangs’ strong offense in the second half, giving up 38 second-half points and allowing them to shoot 56.7 percent from the field. The loss was the Gauchos’ third straight to Cal Poly.
“I definitely [think there’s a revenge factor],” Nesbit said. “Looking back on the film and watching our offensive execution, their transition offense and our transition defense, it was just horrendous. So, I think we’re excited because we know we’re a lot better than we were then.”
Junior center Molly Schlemer and senior guard Kayla Griffin were especially on fire, combining for 43 points and nearly outscoring UCSB on their own. At 6’5’’, Schlemer was a problem in the post for UCSB while Griffin was 3-4 from three-point range and tallied nine rebounds, five assists and four steals.
“I think we took a lot of switches that last game and they exploited some of our smaller guards on Griffin in the low post area and then we also had some miscommunication in transition,” Mitchell said. “At the end of the day, our transition defense has to be a lot better and in the half court, we’ll try to mix things up against Schlemer. But when you don’t have 6’3’’ or 6’4’’ to guard her, you’re pretty limited on what player you decide to put on her.”
Cal Poly’s solid offensive performance against the Gauchos wasn’t a fluke either. The Mustangs rank second in the Big West in scoring offense at 68.6 points per game and lead the league in field goal percentage at 40.9 percent.
“They’re a potent team,” Mitchell said. “They know that they can match you, so they’re willing to give up a basket and then get it out and they’re off to a track meet. We can’t let it become a track meet because that’s not what we do well.”
Therefore, the key this week for the Gauchos will be defense, especially in transition. As the top defensive team in the Big West, holding teams to an average of 53.5 points per game, Santa Barbara is 10-5 when keeping teams less than 60 points and just 1-7 when its opponents break the 60-point mark.
Despite being a Blue-Green Rivalry game, UCSB will be sporting pink gear at it plays in its annual Play 4Kay game to raise breast cancer awareness. Tip-off is set for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Thunderdome.