After an up-and-down regular season, the UCSB women’s basketball team will head to the Honda Center to take on UC Irvine tomorrow in the first round of the Big West Tournament.
For Head Coach Bonnie Henrickson and the Gauchos (8-21, 5-11), just making it to the tournament feels like a victory in and of itself. Despite starting conference play with a 1-7 record, Santa Barbara never quit on the season, winning four of their last eight conference games to secure the eighth and final seed in the tournament.
“Our team kept coming every day with a great attitude and effort,” Henrickson said. “I’m proud of the group for our resolve and resilience.”
If the Gauchos are to keep their season alive, they will have to win four consecutive games in five days, starting with tomorrow’s matchup with the fifth-seeded Anteaters.
Unlike Santa Barbara, UC Irvine (18-10, 8-8) has limped into postseason play after losing five of their last seven games — with the first of those losses a 71-52 blowout defeat at the hands of UCSB.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Tuesday’s matchup will be the health of Irvine’s star forward, Jordan Sanders. Averaging more than 20 points per game on the season, the First Team All-Big West sophomore has missed the team’s last three games with an ankle sprain. In those games, Irvine’s offense has been completely out of sorts, with the team only scoring 56 points per game. On Monday, Irvine’s Head Coach Tamara Inoue acknowledged that Sanders’ status is still uncertain heading into Tuesday’s matchup with SB.
If Sanders doesn’t play, the Anteaters scoring load will fall to the backcourt duo of Lauren Saiki and Andee Ritter. While Saiki has been inconsistent at times this year, her 12.1 points per game rank second on the team, while she leads the squad with 127 assists on the season. Defensively, Saiki is the engine behind Irvine’s vaunted full-court press — a press that has generated almost 21 turnovers per game.
More of an off-ball guard, Ritter’s shooting makes her a constant threat on the offensive end. Even amidst a recent cold stretch from deep, Ritter leads the team with 52 made three’s on the year.
For the Gauchos, Henrickson will look to lean on the backcourt duo of Second Team All-Big West guard Coco Miller and All-Big West Honorable Mention Danae Miller for the team’s offensive production.
In the Gauchos’ drubbing of Irvine in February, those two combined for 41 points, 9 assists and, perhaps most impressively, only four turnovers despite a constant full-court press from Irvine.
“We’ve asked [Coco and Danae] to do a lot for us this year,” Henrickson said. “Danae has stepped into a scoring role, and Coco’s leadership and consistency has led us all year. Both of them have an incredibly high basketball IQ.”
Outside of the backcourt, Santa Barbara also looks to feed the ball inside to junior center Natalia Bruening. While only playing 24 minutes per game, Bruening has chipped in almost 10 points and six rebounds per game. If Sanders can’t play, Bruening should have even more space to operate in the post.
While the odds may be against Santa Barbara to make an almost improbable run in the tournament, they can be inspired by the success of Cal State Northridge last season. Despite being the fifth seed and having to play on Tuesday, Northridge won four games in five days to secure the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
On the Big West tournament conference call on Monday, Henrickson discussed the rich history of the Gauchos’ program — a program that has won this very tournament 14 times in the past. While Santa Barbara may be the lowest-seeded team in the field, they have proven over and over again this season that they will not go down without a fight. If the cards fall the right way, don’t put it past UCSB to make a deep run in the tournament.
The Gauchos will kick-off their postseason play against Irvine on Tuesday at the Honda center, with tip-off slated for 6 p.m.