UCSB women like the chemistry in new season

UCSB's Kelsey Adrian, left, Margaret Johnson, center, and Emilie Johnson at Gaucho basketball media day last week.

UCSB's starting center Mekia Valentine was the third-best shot blocker in the country last season.

As they prepare for the Thursday night’s season opener, the UCSB women’s basketball team has a much different aura surrounding it than it had at the beginning of the season last year.

A year ago at this time, the Gauchos were coping with the loss of five graduating seniors – four of whom started – from the previous season’s NCAA Tournament team. Now, after experiencing a season filled with more lows than highs, they look to move past their growing pains and to reclaim the Big West title that they relinquished last year.

Thursday’s opener is at the Thunderdome, where the Gauchos welcome Cal State Monterey for a 7 p.m. tipoff.

“It says a lot for a group that has every major contributor returning, being ahead on the learning curve, than the team that’s got brand new pieces everywhere, no matter how talented those pieces are, and for us that was really an adjustment,” said third year coach Lindsay Gottlieb.

Gottlieb may have been referencing the differences between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics, but her analysis still rings true when discussing her own squad. UCSB’s lineup will be fortified by senior Mekia Valentine and junior Emilie Johnson, last year’s leading scorers, and also by transfers Kelsey Adrian and Angelei Aguirre, both of whom had to sit out last year due to NCAA rules.

“With this group, we have a lot of talent,” said Gottlieb. “We have a lot of pieces, a lot of weapons. I think what remains to be seen is who’s gonna hit the big shot? Where does the ball go? Who’s gonna get the big stop in the critical situation?”

The Gauchos need to continue the momentum they build at the end of last season, winning seven of their last eight to improve their overall record to 15-17 after an 8-16 start. Gottlieb says this group is emphasizing success in their daily routine.

“I think for us, the difference for this group (in comparision to last year’s), is that they are keyed in on a day in and day out basis,” said Gottlieb. She wants her group to continually ask itself, “Are we performing at a championship level?”

This mentality will immediately be put to the test, for after Monterey the Gauchos are thrown into the frying pan against Pepperdine and UCLA. It is a chance for the Gauchos to see how they stack up against two strong programs.

“We need to position ourselves to get wins and be a top-25 team,” said Gottlieb. “That’s always the goal of this program.”

Valentine, picked to represent UCSB in the preseason All-Conference Team, will continue to establish her reputation as a dominating shot blocker, as she set the UCSB school record for blocks with 120 in her first season as a Gaucho. She and Emilie
Johnson were the focus of many opponents’ game plans, but now Johnson feels that this trend might change.

“It’ll be harder for teams to double or triple team Mekia or I, with Kelsey (Adrian) on the perimeter and Nic (Nicole Nesbit) at the point, we have a lot more weapons,” said Johnson. “We’re really dynamic all across the board.”

“I feel like with the players we have, we’re so wealthy with our chemistry and just how versatile we are,” said Kelsey Adrian. “With the team we have, we can do some damage.”

Hopefully, the Gauchos’ transition period will come to a conclusion when their season begins on Thursday against CSU Monterey Bay.

“We were proud of some of the things we accomplished (last year),” said Gottlieb. “But at the same time, the lingering feel going into the spring was that we have to do things differently, and we have to do things better.”

The Gauchos can start Thursday.