An old, mended basketball standard still holds court at Mira Shulman’s Sacramento home.
It serves as a monument to the reclamation project that has become the Cinderella story for Gaucho women’s basketball.
“My dad found it while driving one day,” said Shulman, a non-scholarship player who walked on to UCSB’s team three years ago. “It was on the side of the road, all broken. But he took it home and taped it up.”
Jeff Shulman trained his daughter well enough on that basket for her to set Elk Grove High’s all-time scoring and assist records. She led the Thundering Herd to the 2016 CIF Northern California Division II championship, and that led her into dreams of Division I scholarship offers … which never came.
“My AAU travel basketball wasn’t as great an experience as I wanted it to be,” she explained. “I was in a weird dynamic, and I kind of think that’s why I got overlooked.”
Shulman’s third year at UCSB has been the charm, however, in proving that she belongs in the world of D1 basketball. She is the first walk-on to ever start for Bonnie Henrickson during her 22 years as a head coach.
“I’ve had unbelievable, quality players in the program who were great on the practice squad, and who traveled with us, and all that,” Henrickson said. “But as far as game-day minutes goes, she’s contributed the most.”
Shulman, who had appeared in only one game during her first two years at UCSB, had a breakout performance at UC Irvine on Jan. 16. She scored 10 points off the bench to rally the Gauchos from a 12-point deficit to a 65-61 victory.
“She goes on an 8-0 run all by herself, hits two threes and two free throws,” Henrickson said of Shulman’s third-quarter outburst. “We weren’t in good shape and she turns the momentum around and gives us a huge lift off the bench.
“In the middle of a tough stretch, she was exactly what the doctor ordered.”
Henrickson started the 5-foot-9 guard three games later in a 75-66 win at Cal State Fullerton.
Shulman has started six other games for UCSB (12-14), which has ascended into third place in the Big West Conference with a 7-6 record. The Gauchos will take a three-game winning streak into Cal Poly’s Mott Gym for tonight’s 7 o’clock game.
UCSB was just 5-9 when Henrickson gave Shulman her first significant playing time during the Jan. 11 home game against Cal Poly. The Gauchos trailed by nine points with less than five minutes to go when Shulman’s 3-pointer triggered a comeback that ended in a 52-50 victory.
“She ends up playing and eventually even gets a starting role because she doesn’t take bad shots, she doesn’t turn the ball over, and she can play in a defensive system,” Henrickson said. “She understands what we’re trying to do … understands her role in what we’re trying to do.
“She has a really high basketball IQ. I know she’s smart in the classroom, but she’s smart in this classroom here, too.”
UCSB’s academic offerings are what convinced Shulman, an economics and accounting major, to reject overtures from several NCAA Division II schools.
“Yes, I could play Division II, which would’ve been fine, but for academic reasons I really wanted to go to a UC,” she said. “My academic career weighed a little bit more than basketball.”
She actually stepped away from the team last year after appearing in just one game as a freshman.
“I was kind of turned away from basketball because I didn’t get recruited,” Shulman admitted. “I was a little down on myself my first year and I didn’t get to play, so I was like, ‘Should I just retire?’
“I took a year off, although I still practiced with the team. I played intramurals, too. I was still around basketball. I finally just realized that I hadn’t really given it a chance.”
She sent a text message to Henrickson at the end of last year’s winter quarter to ask for a face-to-face meeting.
“The conversation was what I was hoping for,” Henrickson said. “She told me, ‘I really miss it and I want to come back… Can I come back?’
“I went, ‘Yes!’ I didn’t even let her finish. ‘Yes! We’d love to have you back!’ We liked having her around because she’s such a quality person.”
Shulman wanted to become a quality, D1 basketball player, too. When she asked Henrickson how she could do that, her coach said it would have to be as a 3-point sniper.
“I told her, ‘If you’re looking at how you can manufacture offense for us, it’s going to be when playmakers penetrate and kick, and you’re on the outside and have your feet down … and you just step into it,’” Henrickson said.
Shulman hadn’t shot many threes in high school or AAU ball.
“I was definitely more of a driver,” she said. “My dad is 6-5 and he taught me everything I know about basketball — other than 3-point shooting. That wasn’t his game and so that wasn’t my game.
“We’d always worked on driving and driving and driving. I’ve had to transition into a different kind of player in college.”
She did that by devoting last summer to shooting hundreds of 3-pointers every day.
“Right away, I was on the gun every day, just shooting and shooting,” Shulman said, referring to a machine which automatically returns the ball to the shooter. “When practice came around, I was knocking down open shots. That boosted my confidence a lot.”
She’s made 9-of-17 threes this season (52.9%) and has also been near-perfect from the free-throw line (10-for-11).
Several of Shulman’s shots have come in the most crucial situations.
“The preparation is what gives you the confidence,” the honors student said.
She is also sure of a big finish for the Gauchos.
“With Ila, we’re going to go far, for sure,” Shulman said, referring to Ila Lane.
The 6-foot-4 freshman center is UCSB’s leading scorer with a 14.8-point average and she also leads the nation with her rebound average of 13.1.
“We’re finding our groove, for sure — we’re figuring out how much to go to Ila,” Shulman said. “I always look for her.
“But when you have your shot, you take it.”
A shot, after all, was all she ever wanted.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.