WeissCrax: Gauchos show bits of flash in Mitchell’s debut

Carlene Mitchell made her Thunderdome debut Tuesday night, and her Gauchos came through with a 62-58 win over Vanguard. (Vince Agapito Photo)

OK, it was only an exhibition game.

So, let’s not get too excited here.

This preseason, nonconference opener doesn’t even count in the record books.

So, let’s keep things in perspective, please.

This game, that meant ‘absolutely nada’, had no bearing on anything, really.

Except, on the other hand …

It’s the public unveiling and first real sighting of the 2011-12 Gaucho women’s basketball team.

And, of course, ( … do that drum-roll-in-your-head-thing here …)  what the world is screaming for:  the debut of UCSB’s Carlene Mitchell in her first head coaching gig after an already decorated collegiate career at Rutgers University.

And, on a sentimental note, it’s the joyous return of Emilie Johnson, one of only two seniors on the squad, fresh from representing the USA at the Pan American Games in Mexico.

“Show time,” as they say, especially for the Fast Breakers, the Gauchos’ very passionate booster base – all dressed in blue on this special night at the Thunderdome.

When the game begins, it takes junior forward Sweets Underwood less than 20 seconds to put the Gauchos on the scoreboard and after leading 4-2, they immediately go into catch-up mode with occasional flashes of the exciting, running, defensive-minded team they will morph into during the regular season.

And for Coach Mitchell, who looks like she could suit up and who’s still “Got Game” … well, she’s dressed, instead, in a sharp black pant suit with a light latte-like color blouse that is a close shade to her ash blonde hair.

She starts on the bench, works the sidelines and mostly leans against the front of the scorer’s table, providing positive encouragement to her team.

She is a coach in control — cool and confident.

Carlene Mitchell discusses strategy with her team during a timeout. (Vince Agapito photo)

The Gauchos trail 28-20 before a 7-0 run takes them into halftime down by one, 28-27.

Both teams play nearly identical first halves in terms of stats — the only noticeable difference is 3-point shooting. The Gauchos shoot a dismal 1 for 7 (14%) compared to 3 for 12 (25%) by the Lions of Vanguard, an NAIA school from Costa Mesa.

In the second half, it’s not until about 11 minutes remaining that the Gauchos crank it up a notch or two.

When Underwood ties it at 45, they begin a steady climb that has a little something for everyone: diving for loose balls and bodies on the floor everywhere; nice 3-point shooting by sophomore guard Melissa Zornig; a basket by senior Kelsey Adrian that ignites the sparse crowd as time expires on the shot clock to tie it again at 49-all; a little dribbling exhibition by Johnson. And tough defense.

Minutes later, the Gauchos appear to have the game in hand with 3:19 remaining and up by eight, 60-52.

But after some misses and turnovers, it’s post-Halloween scary time and 60-58 with less than a minute left in regulation.

With game on the line, this will prove to be an early test of team character.

There’s 11.5 seconds on the clock when Emilie Johnson is fouled again and steps up to the free-throw line for a 1-and-1, as the Lions are finally in the penalty situation.

Vanguard Coach Russ Davis, in his 16th season, calls timeout and that’s when Coach Mitchell pulls her Gauchos together for some final instructions.

And then the story book ending …

Johnson makes the first.

And the second.


Both nothing but net.

The Gauchos win a thriller, 62-58.

They finish with three players scoring in double figures: Johnson 15, Zornig 13 and Underwood 11.

Vanguard also has three players in double figures with Trisha Goddard leading the way with 19 points.

And for Coach Mitchell …

“She’s terrific,” says long-time Fast Breaker E. David Yossem.

“I can’t wait to get back to practice,” Mitchell said afterwards. “Wish we could practice right now and work on our defense.”

Stay tuned.

While the Gauchos still have some things to work on, it’s clear that their best is yet to come.

And Coach Mitchell is the “real deal” – it’s easy to see.

Isn’t this what exhibition games are all about?