It’s been anything but a typical off-season for Coach Bonnie Henrickson and the UC Santa Barbara women’s basketball team.
The last time the Gauchos graced the court, then-junior point guard Danae Miller hit a buzzer-beater jump shot to knock off Hawai’i by 57-56. With the win, UCSB clinched the second seed in the Big West Conference tournament, as well as their fifth win in the last six games.
That, of course, was in March. After months of cancellations and uncertainty, UCSB was finally able to resume in-person practice on Sept. 12 — about a month after the team normally starts gearing up for the season. Even then, the Gauchos were forced to practice outside on the tennis courts using portable baskets.
After a tumultuous couple of months, the ‘Chos have finally recaptured some semblance of normality. Recently, the team was given permission to move practice inside to the Thunderdome. While the pandemic still affects day-to-day operations, it is clear that there will be a women’s basketball season.
So where does that leave Henrickson and the Gauchos? The team faces a difficult task in replacing Coco Miller — a recent grad and versatile stud who provided playmaking on offense while frequently guarding their opponents’ top scorer.
While no single player can replace Coco Miller’s production, Henrickson has a multitude of playmaking options at her disposal this season. After an injury-riddled 2020 season for the Gauchos, the team will get senior center Natalia Bruening and junior guard Bri Anugwom back for the start of the season.
“[Bruening] has a lot of history at the post position for us,” Henrickson told the Nexus. “[Anugwom] worked on becoming a more capable 3-point shooter which will help space the defense. She’s a good defender and a good rebounder for us.”
In particular, the team will need to lean on Bruening — the team’s only natural center. In 2019, Bruening averaged a solid 9.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
Without much depth at center, the team will likely play smaller than it has in past years. , Henrickson raised the possibility of playing junior Lauren Lee at center in a small-ball lineup. While Lee only measures in at 5’11”, her elite defense and off-ball movement would allow the Gauchos to play fast and spread the defense.
With the return of Danae Miller for her senior year, UCSB will have elite playmaking athletes who can take advantage of space in the defense. Last season, Danae Miller averaged a career-high 13.5 points per game, while also dishing out 4 assists per game. With University of Houston transfer Doris Jones eligible to play this season, UCSB will have a formidable backcourt duo.
“We want to challenge teams defensively with the different ways and players who can score,” Henrickson said. “It’s hard to guard 3-point shooters, penetrators and the rim at the same time.”
Perhaps more so than usual, the Gauchos will have to rely on their depth this season. With back-to-back games every week in conference play, Henrickson will be unable to run her starters into the ground. In one of the feel-good stories of last year, senior forward Mira Shulman was given a scholarship for this off-season and will hope to provide some playmaking off the bench for the Gauchos. In addition, Henrickson will likely need to rely on Anya Choice and Alyssa Marin, two freshmen guards whom Henrickson praised heavily.
Beyond that, however, there’s still a lot up in the air for UCSB,at least in terms of numbers. Henrickson said the team is working on submitting waivers to gain eligibility for its two transfers: junior guard/forward Taylor Mole and junior guard Megan Anderson. Mole — a 6’2’’ transfer from Colorado State — would provide the Gauchos with some needed height, while Anderson led San Jose State last season in 3-pointers made and would help space the floor further.
If those waivers are denied — and they will likely either both be accepted or both be denied — then UCSB will only have 10 active players for the season.
“We’re going to have to be creative based on our numbers,” Henrickson said. “I would say we could play more zone [to limit running], but we can’t play zone because this conference shoots the ball so well. We’ll have to be smart from Sunday to Friday — with more shooting, more film and more off-days.”
While the nonconference schedule is yet to be finalized, it is likely that the Gauchos will open the season in late November. UCSB will play a handful of nonconference games in November and December, and will open conference play on Dec. 27 against UC Irvine.
“This is way different than any other season,” Henrickson said. “I really like this group, and I want to have a meaningful season for our seniors.”