The UCSB women’s basketball team may be travelling to beautiful Hawaii, but there is no bigger business trip this year. The mission is simple: earn a win to get one step closer to securing a playoff spot.
With two games remaining in the regular season, the Gauchos hold an 8-19 overall and 3-11 Big West mark. That ranks Santa Barbara just one game ahead of UC Riverside (2-12 in conference) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Big West Tournament.
While Riverside faces two teams this week in UC Davis and Long Beach State that both should account for losses, the Highlanders are fighting for their season and came seconds away from beating first-place Cal State Northridge last Saturday 77-75.
And the Gauchos face two incredibly talented opponents themselves, making the long road trip to Hawaii today before hosting Cal Poly Saturday for senior day. Hawaii currently holds the third seed in the Big West at 15-11 overall and 9-5 in conference. For UCSB, a win would go a long way in securing the eighth seed and ensuring it controls its own destiny.
“We’re trying not to think about [the playoffs],” senior guard Melissa Zornig said. “We’re just trying to play one game at a time and focus on us. We’re focused on our next game: going to Hawaii and beating them at their place.”
Hawaii holds the biggest home court advantage in the league with a five-and-a-half hour flight and a two-hour time zone difference separating it from every other Big West team. The Rainbow Wahine are 10-3 at home, including 6-1 during Big West play, with their only home loss coming to Cal Poly.
Nevertheless, UCSB knows the feeling of victory in Hawaii, defeating the Rainbow Wahine last season on their home court.
Earlier this season, Santa Barbara nearly came away with the victory in Thunderdome, falling 63-60. Hawaii shot 22-24 from the free throw line, including 19-20 in the second half, compared to 3-6 for the Gauchos.
Even then, UCSB held a lead in the final period until the Rainbow Wahine went to star senior forward Kamilah Jackson, who scored six straight points to give Hawaii a three-point lead with under a minute to go.
“[From that game, we take] learning how to close games out,” senior guard Nicole Nesbit said. “We’re pretty good for long stretches, but it came down to the last four minutes where a couple things fell apart. We have to learn how to win.”
Jackson continues to lead Hawaii offensively, averaging 15.5 points and 9.7 rebounds while shooting 50.4 percent from the field. However, Jackson has not played in the last four games after suffering a foot injury against UC Riverside Feb. 13. It is unknown whether she will suit up tonight.
In Jackson’s absence, the Rainbow Wahine have still been solid, going 3-1. Stepping up have been senior guard Shawna-Lei Keuhu, who leads the team in scoring during conference play with 12.2 points per game and scored a team-high 15 points in the Thunderdome, and junior guard Ashleigh Karaitiana, who averages 10.2 points per game. A big, physical team known for playing four power forwards and a point guard, Hawaii has plenty of options.
“It’s obvious they’ve found other players to step up and they’re winning without [Jackson],” Mitchell said. “She is a big-time player, but you can’t just focus on her. It won’t change our game plan at all [if she doesn’t play].”
On the other end, the big emerging player for UCSB has been junior center Clair Watkins, who is a very different player than when Hawaii last saw her. In her last three games, Watkins has averaged a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“[Clair’s] major,” Mitchell said. “I know that. She knows that. We need her to get the paint and score.”
Yet don’t expect an offensive battle tonight as both teams are very defensive minded. Under Mitchell, the Gauchos have been a team that prides itself on its defense and the Rainbow Wahine currently lead the Big West in scoring defense, holding teams to 60.7 points during conference play.
“First of all, [the fact that they’re in first] frustrates me because that should be us and it was us in the past,” Mitchell said. “They’re big, they’re strong and they’re physical. I tell our team, ‘it’s a compliment — they play like old ladies.’ They don’t beat themselves. They make the right decisions, and they do all the blue-collar things that allow them to be where they’re at in the conference standings.”
Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. Pacific Time at Stan Sheriff Center.
A version of this article appeared on page 6 of March 6th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.