At this time last year, the UCSB women’s basketball team was coming off a Big West Championship and NCAA postseason berth with almost the entire team returning for this season.

This year, that isn’t quite the case.

This season, the Gauchos fell in the semifinals of the Big West Tournament to Cal Poly, although the team did still earn a bid to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament, sending them to the postseason for the second consecutive season.

“I don’t think at any point we played consistent enough though to make the run we did the previous year,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “Yet we made it to postseason play two years in a row and most of my friends outside of Santa Barbara in this profession continue to remind me that in building a program, that doesn’t happen a lot. You don’t get to the NCAA in year one. And any time you can be one of 64 or 180 teams playing in postseason play, you have to feel good about that for the future.”

With the season over, Mitchell has been busy recruiting as she loses three incredibly important seniors in the program to graduation in guard Angelei Aguirre, center Kirsten Tilleman and forward Sweets Underwood.

Three of the top four leaders in minutes for Santa Barbara this season were its seniors, with all starting at least 30 of the 33 games. Underwood led the team in scoring at 12.2 points per game and, combined with Tilleman, dominated the boards for UCSB, grabbing 9.2 and 7.1 rebounds, respectively. Tilleman led the team in steals with 1.0 per game, while Aguirre led the team in blocks with 0.7 per game.

“They all led in different ways and had different roles,” Mitchell said. “At the end of the day, it’s always hard to replace players that have played a lot of minutes because we always know that experience will trump talent.”

Losing their entire starting frontline, the obvious need for UCSB going into next year is height. The Gauchos have typically been undersized, but Mitchell, who was Rutgers University’s recruiting coordinator for seven years and was known for consistently bringing in the top talent in the nation, seems to have answered the call.

“I think (last season) the lack of size caught up with us,” Mitchell said. “We all know that against Poly in the semifinals, it was size (that cost us). Hopefully we’ve addressed that with recruiting.”

The look of the team should be very different next year with five recruits, two transfers and three freshmen coming to Santa Barbara and one more possible recruit in the works.

Mitchell’s newest recruit is junior forward Hillary Drinovsky. At 6’3’’, Drinovsky signs with UCSB after playing last season for Central Arizona College, which posted a 32-2 record, earning a trip to the NJCAA National Championship Game.

Coming from New Jersey, Mitchell is familiar with Drinovsky, working with her in middle school when she attended basketball camps at Rutgers.

Last season, Drinovsky only averaged 2.7 points per game, but shot 45.7 percent from the field and averaged 0.8 blocks per game. She’s known as a more defensive player with a blue-collar mentality. For anyone that’s familiar with UCSB women’s basketball, Drinovsky personifies a lot of the characteristics of Tilleman.

“One hundred percent that’s the best way to describe her (is like Tilleman), besides the fact that she’s legit 6’3’’ or 6’4’’, so she’s a big strong body,” Mitchell said. “She played on a very successful junior college team. That tells me right away she’s played against elite-level competition. She took a unique route to get to UCSB, so she’s got a bit of a chip on her shoulder and things to prove, but she’ll be the closest in exemplifying our personality and work ethic in the same way that Tilleman did.”

Mitchell’s other transfer also comes to UCSB with a lot of experience. Junior Kristine Brance played her first two years at nationally-ranked Chipola College in Florida. Helping the team to the Elite Eight at the NJCAA Woman’s National Basketball Tournament, Brance earned Second Team All-Tournament honors.

Originally from Riga, Latvia, the 5’7’’ guard also played for her national team during the U20 2011 European Championships. Now coming to Santa Barbara, Brance brings offense to a defensive-minded UCSB squad.

Brance was the Indians second-leading scorer last season, averaging 14.2 points per game. She shot 39 percent from the field, 36 percent from behind the arc, and a team-best 85 percent from the free throw line.

“Anytime you can bring in an international kid, they have high basketball IQs,” Mitchell said. “She played on a junior college team that didn’t lose a lot of games. You want kids that refuse to lose. Kristine can play multiple positions and give us a three-point threat.”

As junior college players transferring, both Drinovsky and Brance are expected to make an immediate impact for the Gauchos.

“With Hillary and Kristine, we got some hidden talent. I think some people knew about them but I think they’ll be players that in the Big West can make a big-time impact,” Mitchell said. “The programs that they were at automatically give them leadership qualities that are hard to get from freshmen that are just trying to find their way through the college lifestyle.”

Also giving UCSB more height is 6’2’’ freshman Melissa Maragnes of St. Monica High School. In her senior year, Maragnes earned Division IV All-CIF honors, averaging 9.9 points per game, second on the team. She also tallied 8.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.6 assists per game, leading her team to the third round of the CIF State Girls Basketball Championships. Maragnes also owns the Mariners’ single-season blocked shots record with 60.

“Melissa is going to give us a lot of what Sweets gave — a big-time athlete,” Mitchell said. “She has the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. She gives us a defensive presence as a shot blocker, but she also runs the floor like a guard. She’s just an athlete that is skillful around the basket, a great rebounder, and gives us some athleticism on the inside.”

Freshman Onome Jemerigbe also comes from a high school team that knows how to win. Playing for St. Mary’s High School, the 5’6” point guard helped her team to a 32-3 overall and 10-0 league record. The team was ranked No. 7 in California and No. 14 in the nation.

“Onome is lighting-quick end-to-end and is that guard that is going to give point guards nightmares,” Mitchell said. “She has a pass-first, shoot-second mentality and she’ll be able to get in the gaps and create for others.”

Finally, Mitchell’s last recruit for next year is freshman Mi’Chael Wright, who at 5’11’’ will play the forward position for the Gauchos. During her senior season at Chaminade High School, Wright led the Eagles to a 30-4 overall record while going 9-1 in conference play. She averaged 12.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.6 blocks per game.

“The best way I can probably describe her is a lot like Angelei Aguirre,” Mitchell said. “She played the power forward in high school, but she has the ability to handle it well enough that at some point we’ll make her a wing player because she does shoot it well and is a great line driver. She just has that blue-collar mentality; just about every game she found a way to get a double-double.”

Next season, these recruits will join several veteran players for UCSB, including senior guards Destini Mason, Nicole Nesbit and Melissa Zornig.

“I think it’s going to be a different look for us,” Mitchell said. “We want to open it up more. With Nick, Destini and Onome, you have guards that can create their own shots and create for others. And then we have shooters, like Mel and Christine. I think this is a team with more speed and quickness that we can press an aggressive press, not just a tempo press.”

Of course, no matter the players, there’s always one thing that will stay the same with Mitchell at the helm: the focus will be defense.


A version of this article appeared on page 9 of May 29th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.

Photo courtesy of Ramon Ravirosa