UC Santa Barbara by Sean White
Since winning the Big West title and losing to Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in their 2011-12 campaign, the UCSB women’s basketball program has struggled to regain their prominence within the Big West Conference. Over the past three seasons, the Gauchos have amassed an overall record of 26-66.
The uncanny decline prompted the hiring of Head Coach Bonnie Henrickson, who had spent the last 11 years coaching at the University of Kansas. In her first year, Henrickson and the Gauchos currently sit at 4-12 overall and 1-1 in conference play, exceeding their total of two wins last season.
Santa Barbara won three consecutive games entering conference play for the first time since the 2012-13 season, on the heels of an eight-game losing streak.
“The record looks like we fell apart,” Henrickson said. “But in those stretches we had opportunities where we played pretty well and put ourselves in the position to win. We didn’t get it done, but we learned and grew from it. From the staff’s perspective, we respect the fact that every day they come back, no matter what the scoreboard says, and try to get it right.”
The Gauchos kicked off conference play with a 78-67 win over Cal Poly before being outmatched by a superior UCR team 83-53 this past Saturday.
Since scoring a career-high 27 points against Pepperdine earlier this season, sophomore guard Makala Roper was placed in the starting lineup and continues to emerge as a primary scorer for the Gauchos. She leads UCSB in scoring with an average of 12.1 points per game. Roper also holds the team-high in 20-point games with three.
Despite Roper’s rise in production, the loss of freshman forward Kali Jones certainly affects UCSB’s presence in the paint. She has missed the team’s last five games and has been ruled indefinitely ineligible for the remainder of the season.
“We’ve got to have somebody that produces at the five,” Henrickson said. “At the end of the day it’s about production. We have Kendra, Mi’Chael, Chaya and Je Zhé Newton at the five, but we just have not got the production that I know we’re going to need to be successful in a league that’s this talented.”
UCSB received the least amount of votes in the Big West women’s basketball preseason poll and is expected to finish last in the standings. Yet, the Gauchos are playing their best basketball entering the second half of the season.
Santa Barbara continues conference play tonight on the road against Cal State Fullerton at 7:00 p.m.
Hawaii by Michael Jorgenson
The Hawaii women’s basketball team came into this year as the clear favorite to finish atop the conference, collecting 13 of 17 first place votes in the preseason coaches’ poll. The Rainbow Wahine were coming off a season in which they dominated conference play, going 23-9 overall and 14-2 Big West as they won their first regular season conference title since the 1993-94 season.
However, reigning Big West Coach of the Year Laura Beeman and her team have found how difficult it is to repeat success from one season to the next. Hawaii has managed only a middling 8-7 overall, 1-1 conference record to this point, sitting at fifth in the conference.
The Rainbow Wahine lost two starters from last year, including their leading scorer guard Shawna-Lei Kuehu — the team’s only double-digit scorer. This year, they are led by senior guard Ashleigh Karaitiana, a second team All-Big West selection in 2015.
Karaitiana, the team’s top threat from deep, struggled mightily with her shot through her team’s nonconference schedule, hitting just 17.5 percent on three-point attempts. As a result, she comes in as just the team’s third-leading scorer at 8.1 points per game, behind sophomore center Megan Huff and senior guard/forward Destiny King, who average 8.2 and 9.8 ppg, respectively.
Karaitiana seems to have gotten hot at the right time with conference play starting, as she has made 6-14 (42.9 percent) through the opening two games.
Hawaii has not been able to find the rhythm on offense that saw it drop just two conference games in 2015, as it currently ranks fifth in scoring at 60.5 points a night. A big reason for this has been the team’s three-point shooting, which is second-worst in the league at 25.4 percent.
However, its defense has been able to keep it in games, as it ranks first in opponent three-point shooting (25.4 percent) and opponent scoring (61.2 ppg).
While it is still early, the Rainbow Wahine will need to improve if they are going to find a way to repeat as regular season champs and win the Big West Tournament. Getting the offense going may be the key, as they have allowed just 1.1 ppg more to opponents compared to last year while scoring 7.3 ppg less.
Hawaii plays its third conference game tonight against Cal State Northridge in the Stan Sheriff Center at 9:00 p.m. PST.
UC Riverside by Daniel Moebus-Bowles
After taking home a big win on the road against Grand Canyon University, the UC Riverside women’s basketball team pushed back up to an even record of 7-7 to conclude the nonconference portion of their season. The Highlanders’ record placed them in the middle of the Big West standings at fifth place to enter the conference schedule, but their rank and record proved to not have any influence on their play to start the second half of the season.
UCR is now 9-7, 2-0 in Big West play after victories over UC Irvine in its conference opener and UCSB last Saturday, extending its winning streak to three games. Riverside is now just one of two teams in the conference that boast an undefeated record through two conference games, its first 2-0 start since the 2007-08 season.
“Conference play is a whole other animal,” Head Coach John Margaritis said. “We had a very good schedule and if we learn from the teams we played and the games that we had, it will pay off for us in the Big West. We just need to focus on playing four quarters of basketball.”
One of the Highlanders’ strong points this year has been their offense, as they have found most of their wins coming with high scores and large leads. So far this season, the team has averaged 75.4 points per game, and in their nine victories, that figure increases to 85.5 points. Those wins were not only high-scoring, but also dominated by Riverside, who has beaten every opponent by an average 21.0 points.
“We have been very offensive-minded so far, which has led us to some of our big wins,” Margaritis explained. “Now we are looking to strengthen the defensive end of our game.”
The team’s roster is decorated with three former Big West Freshman of the Year recipients, multiple members of Big West All-Conference teams and last year’s Big West Player of the Year. The all-around talent that this team possesses makes them a very deep and tough unit to break.
The reigning Big West Player of the Year, senior guard Brittany Crain, is joined by junior transfer forward Réjane Verin at the top of the scorers list, as they lead the team with averages of 19.2 and 17.3 point per game, respectively. Senior guard Annelise Ito also complements Riverside’s offense as she leads the team in assists at 4.9 per game, is second in boards at 7.1 and third in points at 13.5. These three players account for a majority of the team’s statistics, but Margaritis explains that their success is a complete team effort.
“You can’t just talk about a couple players when you think of this team — you really can’t leave any of them out of the discussion,” Margaritis said. “We have a whole team, and all of our players together are very difficult to play against.”
The Highlanders hope to continue their great start to conference play in their next game at Hawaii on Saturday, Jan. 16 at 9:00 p.m. in the Stan Sheriff Center.
Cal Poly by Elliot Thornton
Ending last season on a bitter note with a first-round loss to Cal State Fullerton, Head Coach Faith Mimnaugh and the Cal Poly Mustangs look to make a deeper push in the Big West Tournament this year with a more experienced squad.
Predicted to finish third in the Big West according to the conference media polls, the Mustangs are currently 8-7 overall and 1-1 in Big West play after a loss to Blue-Green rival UCSB and a win at UC Irvine. Since the departures of former seniors Kristen Ale, Taryn Garza and Ariana Elegado, expectations have been placed upon senior guard Beth Balbierz and junior forward Hannah Gilbert to fill their absence on the team.
“Our pieces have changed [this year] and certainly they are significant pieces, but the main phases of our program are still intact,” Mimnaugh said.
Certainly, there’s no avoiding the loss of players each season, and Cal Poly has maintained its prominence in the Big West by finishing in the top three or better of the conference for seven straight seasons.
The Mustangs’ combination of Gilbert in the post and Balbierz at guard has been a consistent scoring force, as the two rank eighth and 11th in the conference with averages of 12.8 and 11.9 points per game, respectively.
Gilbert, a two-year starter, led the conference in field-goal percentage last season at .526 percent. The 6’3” junior has proven to be a mismatch down low, scoring 15 points or more in four games this year, including a team-high 23-point outing in the Mustangs’ win over Sac State. Gilbert also leads the Big West in rebounds with 9.9 per game.
After starting six games during her first two seasons, Balbierz has finally embraced a leadership role in Cal Poly’s backcourt. Leading the team with 23 makes from downtown this year, Mimnaugh will utilize Balbierz’s shooting ability to spread the floor and give more opportunities for Gilbert down low.
“[Beth] has been waiting her turn playing the sixth man role during previous years,” Mimnaugh said. “Her intelligence on the court has been a savior for [us]. Beth has always had the ability to shoot the three, but she also added driving and passing skills to her repertoire this year, so we are very pleased with that.”
Gilbert and Balbierz will be central components to the Mustangs’ success this year. The Mustangs will go as far as the two upperclassmen carry their team.
Cal Poly will face Cal State Fullerton in its conference home opener on Saturday, Jan. 16 at 4:00 p.m. at Mott Athletics Center.
Cal State Northridge by Jorge Mercado
Coming off a great 23-win season a year ago and an NCAA Tournament bid, the two-time defending Big West Tournament Champion Cal State Northridge Matadors were hoping for another great season. However, they have struggled mightily, mustering only a 2-13 overall, 0-1 conference record and are currently in the midst of a five-game losing streak.
“We want to just continue to get better each day,” Head Coach Jason Flowers said. “Daily improvement is constantly our focus.”
The Matadors are currently tied for the worst record in the Big West with CSUF after falling to UC Davis 75-52 in their conference opener. With no seniors on the team, this inexperienced young roster has not been able to produce wins.
They also faced a very difficult nonconference schedule with games against tough opponents such as No. 21 California, Utah, Georgia and Idaho. They were outscored by those four opponents by an average of 46 points per game, with Cal and Idaho each scoring 106 points in those matchups.
“We challenged ourselves with our nonconference schedule,” Flowers said, “and found out how much we need to improve to get to the level we strive to attain.”
Another reason for CSUN’s tough start is the graduation of their two top guards from a year ago, Ashlee Guay and Janae Sharpe. Both were named to the Big West Conference All-Tournament Team, while Guay was awarded with MVP honors.
Even though the team has been underwhelming to this point, they are still contenders in the Big West. The Matadors still have a great head coach in Flowers, who has twice been named the Big West Conference Coach of the Year.
CSUN also retained Big West All-Freshman forward Tessa Boagni, who currently leads the team in scoring with 12.4 points per game, which is ninth best in the conference, and shooting, knocking down 48.4 percent of her shots.
However, in order to truly turn this season around, the Matadors will need to take better care of the ball. They currently average 18.5 turnovers per game, fourth worst in the Big West. They will also need to play better on defense, as they rank last in the conference, allowing marks of 79.9 ppg and 46 percent shooting to opponents.
“We have grown in various areas throughout this season,” Flowers said. “We will continue to do so through March.”
CSUN plays its second conference game today at Hawaii at 9 p.m. PST in the Stan Sheriff Center.
Long Beach State by Antonia Bird
After putting together one of the most outstanding seasons in recent history in 2014-15, the Long Beach State women’s basketball team is eager to make history again.
Their 22-10 overall record last season was the team’s best since 1990-91. Moreover, their 13-1 nonconference record last season was the best in school history.
Long Beach is in the midst of another solid start as it heads into Big West play, currently standing at 12-4 overall and 1-1 in conference. The conference’s opening weekend saw the 49ers fall against Hawaii 67-55 before blowing out Cal State Fullerton 82-61 on the road. With such an impressive early record, Long Beach appears set to repeat last year’s success and will once again be the team to beat.
The 49ers’ biggest threats are junior guards Raven Benton and Jewelyn Sawyer. Each are well-rounded players who play crucial roles in the team’s success.
After sitting out the last eight games of her sophomore year due to an injury, Benton has proven herself ready in these first 14 games of her junior season. She leads her team with 13.1 points per game and is second with an average of 5.3 rebounds per game. She is off to a hot start in conference play, averaging 20 points a night while shooting 50 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from three-point range.
Teammate Jewelyn Sawyer is yet another option for Long Beach, as she holds the second best average for points per game with 10.5. She saw an impressive game high of 16 points in the 49ers’ nonconference finale against Seattle two weeks ago. Sawyer’s biggest advantage is her ability to rebound, as she currently leads the team with 6.6 boards per game.
Long Beach’s next game will be at UC Irvine this Saturday at 2:00 p.m.
UC Davis by Ryan Burns
After its loss in the semi-finals of last year’s Big West Tournament, the UC Davis women’s basketball team has entered conference play with the intent of landing near or at the top of the standings at the end of the regular season.
“We are all competitive and would love to win a championship, but the ultimate goal is to make sure our players are growing,” UC Davis Head Coach Jennifer Gross said.
The Aggies finished in fifth place in the Big West last season with an 8-8 record (15-16 overall), but most of the team’s stars returned this year. Senior forward Alyson Doherty was named to the preseason All-Conference team prior to this season, and two games into Big West play, she is leading the Aggies with averages of 6.5 rebounds and 1.67 blocks per game. She is also second on the team in scoring, averaging 13.2 points per game.
The team’s leading scorer is forward Morgan Bertsch with an average of 13.4 ppg. The redshirt freshman has come alive in recent weeks, as she notched three 20-point performances in December and forced her way into the starting lineup.
“Alyson Doherty and Celia Marfone have played a lot of minutes for us since their freshmen year,” Gross said. “This year we have asked them to be more vocal on the court and help set the tone with consistent effort and energy.”
Gross has been at the helm of the Aggies’ coaching staff for five years after playing her collegiate career in Davis. After four years with the Doherty-led senior class, the coach believes the team’s upperclassmen are setting a good example for the younger stars.
“They are well respected amongst their teammates and have a strong voice, especially when assisting some of our younger players,” Gross said.
Three underclassmen, including Bertsch and sophomores Pele Gianotti and Dani Nafekh, are among the top five in minutes per game for UCD. If freshman breakout Bertsch is regularly able to put up big numbers, she will be an early contender for the Big West Freshman of the Year.
“This preseason provided us with so many opportunities to grow, and we have improved in a lot of areas, but understand that we still have a lot of work to do,” Gross said. “There is still so much time to improve and I am excited to see where this team can be in March.”
Cal State Fullerton by Sinead Leon
With Big West play upon us, the Cal State Fullerton women’s basketball team is looking to break their 13-game losing streak.
After being voted to finish sixth in this year’s preseason coach’s poll, the Titans finished their nonconference schedule in eighth place with an overall record of 2-12 and have since lost their conference opener to Long Beach State 82-61.
“We are an extremely young team learning the differences between high school and college basketball,” Head Coach Daron Park said. “I think we have the potential to be a very competitive team in the Big West Conference — I just don’t know when that light will click on for them.”
Last year, Fullerton averaged 59.7 points per game, but its weakness was mainly that it lacked defense and in return would allow 62.6 on average.
To top it off, the Titans have been faced with having to replace more than half of their offensive production from last year with the loss of two of the Big West’s top scorers in graduated seniors Chante Miles and Kathleen Iwuoha.
Someone who is doing a fine job at that is guard/forward Michelle Berry, who began conference play with four double-doubles. In the last conference game against North Dakota State, the freshman scored 16 points while also leading the team with four assists.
Another new face to watch out for is freshman guard Lauren Nubla. She led her high school team to the CIF Division I Championship Title, was named Athlete of the Year and received the CIF Sportsmanship Award in her senior year with 246 points and 14 three-pointers.
Nubla scored a season-high11 points in the Titans’ last nonconference game of the season.
“We are very excited about Lauren and her contributions so far this season,” Park said. “She is another freshman playing significant minutes and being asked to shoulder upperclassman responsibility. I expect her to continue to grow and develop as a player as conference play begins.”
The Titans look to climb out of the bottom spot where they have ended up the last couple of years, continuing their conference schedule with their second Big West game against UCSB tonight at 7:00 p.m. in the Titan Gym in Fullerton.
UC Irvine by Xavier Cardenas
The Anteaters were predicted to finish eighth in the conference by the Big West Media Preseason Poll and are experiencing a downward trend since the start of the Big West schedule. Irvine’s six-game slump prior to entering conference play has now extended to eight consecutive games after losses to UC Riverside and Cal Poly.
The Anteaters concluded the nonconference portion of their season with an overall record of 3-11, but are now 3-13, 0-2 after the pair of Big West losses. Although they have suffered losses against tough opponents such as USC, UCLA and Princeton, UCI has shown resilience.
“They are a resilient group — we have not played good basketball [during this stretch]. It’s unfortunate, but we have not been playing well offensively and we cannot score,” Head Coach Doug Oliver said. “Until that turns around, we will not be competitive.”
However, Oliver remains optimistic about UCI’s remaining schedule, maintaining the mindset of taking it one game at a time. Despite Irvine’s struggles during nonconference play and its winless start to its Big West schedule, the hope is that the Anteaters will hit their stride throughout the remainder of conference play.
“Usually at this point teams have developed an identity, and we are struggling to come up with who we are,” Oliver said. “Seasons are in parts — nonconference, season and postseason. We got through the nonconference part of play, and it didn’t go our way, but let’s move on.”
Currently the Anteaters are the second worst scoring team in the conference at 57.9 ppg and are last in field goal percentage at 34.7 percent. As its offense struggles to produce, Irvine will depend on its defense to create plays on the other end of the court.
“Our concentration is on our defensive effort — really, for us it’s rebounding,” said Oliver. “We play a lot more zone defense than other teams, which causes issues on rebounds. If we break even on rebounds we will make open shots.”
Rebounding is most important for UC Irvine and it will need the efforts of All-Conference forward junior Mokun Fajemisin. Fajemisin has recorded 25 blocks and is averaging 7.9 rebounds per game, placing her second and third respectively in Big West in both statistical categories.
With hopes to turn things around, the Anteaters’ next game will be against UC Davis on Thursday, Jan. 14 at 5:30 p.m.
*All stats accurate as of 1/13/16
A version of this article was published in January 14, 2016’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.