“Only the strong survive.”
For UCSB women’s basketball player Sweets Underwood, it’s an adage that sticks with her every day.
In 2002, at just 10 years old, Underwood lost her mother to breast cancer. Three years earlier, she had lost her father to a heart attack. Her aunt and uncle took her in, but then this past year, tragedy struck again.
Last November, Underwood’s uncle passed away and the saying became even more significant in her life.
“It’s something my aunt and uncle would always say,” Underwood said. “[They] took me in at a really young age after I lost my mom and of course you go into depression. Things happen, but it’s up to you to push on and in this world, only the strong survive, so that’s something that was instilled in me at a very young age and I’ve stuck with it ever since.”
Despite the hardship in Underwood’s life, there was one person who continued to push her. And that person was Head Coach Carlene Mitchell.
“I told her that sometimes I felt basketball had been the easiest thing in her life,” Mitchell said. “I made it extremely hard for her. Once she said she wanted a chance to play at the next level, I knew there was no way I could let her slide by with things that by human nature you would want to with a kid of her background.”
Since the beginning of her two-year reign in Santa Barbara, Mitchell has been saying that Underwood should average a double-double on the floor every night.
This season, she basically did.
Compared to only eight double-doubles in her first three years at UCSB, the senior forward recorded 12 this season, averaging 12.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.
“We allowed her to see mismatches and with her athletic ability, there was no reason she couldn’t (average a double-double),” Mitchell said. “I think she started enjoying the fact that when a big shot needed to be made, she was confident enough in herself that she was willing to put that burden on her shoulders.”
Underwood’s mental toughness clearly translates onto the court. Strength is echoed in Underwood’s play as she emerged as not only a consistent player, but a leader for UCSB this season.
“She never backs down and she never lets anything get to her,” senior center and co-captain Kirsten Tilleman said. “No matter what goes on on the court, she’s going to be consistently working hard.”
A team captain, Underwood wears No. 1, taking the number after becoming the first girl from Centennial High to earn a NCAA Division I basketball scholarship in 20 years. With Underwood as its leader, the team also won its first league championship.
The number has come to suit the Compton, CA native well as she became UCSB’s leader this season. She was the only player to start in every game this season for the Gauchos and averaged a team-high 33.1 minutes per game.
“It was definitely good to have that consistent presence,” Tilleman said. “We knew what we were going to get from Sweets every night and that was something we were able to fall back on a lot.”
Leading the team in points, rebounds and field goal percentage, Underwood becomes the first player to lead the team in all three categories since Jenna Green during the 2006-07 season.
As a result, the accolades came rolling in for Underwood. She was named to the 2012-13 All-Big West First Team and earned Big West Player of the Week four times, a program record.
“In the end, she got the ultimate of being recognized by the coaches in this conference as an all-conference player,” Mitchell said. “All the accolades [are] well deserved. She worked hard on her game.”
Offensively, Underwood was crucial in helping the team have an inside presence, allowing the team to play an inside-out game. She could knock down the elbow jumper or post up down low and make the tough layups over bigger defenders.
Her 12.2 points per game and 48.1 percent shooting from the field ranked eighth and third in the Big West, respectively. She also shot 75.9 percent from the free throw line.
“[As for] scoring, most nights we had to have her on the court to have a chance to win,” Mitchell said. “She has long arms and she’s a quick leaper, so her athleticism kind of countered the fact that she’s undersized. Also, she’s quick on the dribble, so she could face up larger post players and exploit their weaknesses off the dribble.”
Underwood was just as important on the defensive end, anchoring UCSB’s defense and often making the much-needed plays, whether that was tipping the ball out of bounds with 0.7 seconds remaining to secure UCSB a road victory or grabbing 16 rebounds at Pacific in what was probably the team’s best game of the year.
Although she measures in at just 6’0’’, Underwood ranked fourth in the Big West in rebounding with 9.2 rebounds per game and first in conference play in defensive boards with 6.8 per contest. Against Northridge Feb. 23, Underwood was all over the glass, tallying a career-high 20 rebounds.
“[Defense was] our team identity. Our mentality was to get stops and a defensive possession isn’t over until you seal that rebound,” Underwood said. “My mentality was to be extremely aggressive on the boards. I wanted that to be my identity.”
In Underwood’s final game of the year, she recorded another career-high, proving once again she can play through adversity. She exploded for 23 points against San Diego State in the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament, marking the second time she had broken her career-high this season. The game was especially important for Underwood after finishing with a season-low four points in a loss to Cal Poly in the semifinals of the Big West Tournament.
“The basketball gods recognized what this kid had given to the program and they gave her a chance to play in postseason play,” Mitchell said. “To be able to look herself in the mirror and look back and be proud because no matter what, you’re human and it’s typically that last game that you’re going to remember, I didn’t want her to have any regrets.”
The team’s second straight postseason appearance, Underwood went into that game just one point shy of the 1,000-point mark. She became the 24th player in program history to join the 1,000-point club.
“To be able to reflect on the season and know that I have not one regret, I think I can look at myself and be proud of that,” Underwood said.
In the face of adversity, both on the court and off, Underwood has certainly proved to be nothing less than a fighter.
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of April 10th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Mark Brocher of the Daily Nexus.