UCSB will be three games late and four players short when it opens its basketball season today at No. 11 UCLA, but you won’t hear any complaints from the Gauchos.
“We get to play, that’s what we’re excited about,” said Bonnie Henrickson, who is starting her sixth season as UCSB’s head coach. “I’ve been checking women’s basketball scores to see how former assistants and friends are doing, and it’s like 14 games a day are being postponed.”
“Our players have been here since September, so they’re just excited to play a game,
It will be a morning debut, with today’s tipoff at Pauley Pavilion coming at 11 a.m.
The Gauchos were forced to cancel their first three games when a member of their staff tested positive for COVID-19. Henrickson said the team has put the disappointment behind them.
“I’d feel differently if it had been a case of being reckless rather than just really bad luck,” she said. “No one has any idea how it happened.
“All we know is that we’ve got to control what we can control and do what we’re supposed to do.”
Three Gauchos including Ila Lane, a 6-foot-4 center who led the nation in rebounding last year, have opted out of the season over concern for the coronavirus. And while senior guard Aliceah Hernandez has resumed workouts after offseason knee surgery, she’s still not cleared to play. That leaves UCSB with just eight players for today’s game.
UCLA coach Cori Close, who was inducted into the UCSB Hall of Fame in 2005 after a stellar career as a player and assistant coach, has the Bruins poised for a big season. They went 26-5 last year and were set to play host to the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the rest of the season.
Close, who is in her 10th season as the Bruins’ head coach, improved her record to 200-105 with a win last week at Arizona State. UCLA’s lone loss in three games this season came at No. 7 Arizona.
The Gauchos will battle the Bruins with a lineup that features just one player — 6-4 Natalia Bruening — who stands even 6-feet tall. She’ll start on the post along with Lauren Lee, a 5-11 senior.
“Whomever fouls first will also be the first to come out,” Henrickson said. “We don’t have depth at either of those positions, so Lauren is the backup five. Both need to stay out of foul trouble.”
Bruening averaged 9.9 points and 6.1 rebounds as a junior but was sidelined all of last season with an injury.
UCLA (2-1) is strong in the post with 6-foot forward Michaela Onyenwere and 6-4 freshman Emily Bessoir. Onyenwere, who was voted to the Associated Press Preseason All-America team, averaged 18.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game last season. Bessoir was named to ESPN’s Impact Newcomer List.
Charisma Osborne, a 5-9 guard, is also strong on the backboards, averaging 5.8 rebounds last year to go with a 12.2-point scoring average.
“The biggest concern (today) is how explosive they are in transition and the physicality they bring on the offensive glass, from the one to the five,” Henrickson said. “They even have fives bringing the ball up the floor, and defending that in transition and getting matched up is unique.
“In their first three games, they’ve scored a lot of transition points and offensive-rebounding points. That’s a big chunk of their scoring.”
Two Gauchos coming off redshirt seasons — 5-9 Doris Jones and 5-7 Bri Anugwom — have added some athleticism to the team’s roster.
Jones, who started her career at the University of Houston, transferred to UCSB last year after earning first-team All-State JC honors in 2019. She scored more than 1,000 points during two seasons at Diablo Valley Community College. Anugwom averaged 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds for the Gauchos as a sophomore but missed last season with a knee injury.
“Doris has been making the transition, not only creating for herself but also for others,” Henrickson said. “And it’s good to get Bri back. She was out with an ACL, and we need to get her back into the flow.
“She’d been cleared and working out on her own during the summer.”
The Gauchos will be led by 5-7 senior Danae Miller, a two-time All-Big West Conference point guard who averaged 13.5 points and 4.0 assists last year. She’s also taken two freshmen guards under her wings: 5-8 Anya Choice of Santa Rosa and 5-9 Alyssa Marin of Camarillo.
“Danae has been looking really good,” Henrickson said. “Anya is a playmaker, creating shots, and moving and handling the ball.
“Alyssa has been impressive in getting us into transition. She’s played a lot of catch with her brother (Michael), who was a high school quarterback, and she looks like a quarterback at times with the way she can throw and advance the ball up the floor.”
The Gauchos could get more help. The NCAA Council will vote on Dec. 16 on a proposal to give transfers immediate eligibility. UCSB has a pair of tall shooters waiting in the wings: 6-foot Megan Anderson from San Jose State and 6-2 Taylor Mole from Colorado State.
“Both have been shooting the ball really well,” Henrickson said. “That would get us to 12 for conference play, which would give us some wiggle room.”
The Gauchos will play their home opener on Friday at 5 p.m. against Cal Baptist. They’ll also play host to Santa Clara in back-to-back games on Dec. 18 and 19.