Coach Bonnie Henrickson found several silver linings while her UCSB women’s basketball team trained under the cloud of COVID.
The Gauchos, who took their conditioning indoors on Monday, will open official, full-scale practice today at the Thunderdome.
“It’s been a pleasant surprise, what we’ve been able to do during COVID,” said Henrickson, who is starting her sixth season as UCSB’s head coach. “For one thing, we’ve shot more than any team I’ve ever coached.
“You can’t play one-on-one or have contact, and you don’t want to do much footwork on an outside surface, but you can shoot.”
The Gauchos, the No. 2 seed for the Big West Conference Tournament that was canceled by the coronavirus last March, had been shooting for the last month at portable baskets on the tennis courts next to Robertson Gym and the Intercollegiate Athletics Building.
“Danae (Miller) looks good, and Natalia (Bruening) has been shooting it well, too,” Henrickson said. “We’ve let Natalia shoot a lot from the perimeter. What good does it do to shoot a lot around the rim when no one’s allowed to touch you?”
Miller is a two-time All-Big West point guard who averaged 13.5 points and 4.0 assists last year. Bruening, a 6-foot-4 post player, averaged 9.9 points and 6.1 rebounds as a junior before sitting out last season as an injury redshirt.
Bri Anugwom, a 5-7 junior who averaged 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds in 2018-19, is also back from a knee injury.
“She’s still in a brace but going full-court in all the workouts,” Henrickson said. “She’s looking good, too. And Kiana (Vierra, 5-10 junior guard) is here, getting in the mix, after having a procedure on her foot.”
Three-point shooting has been a point of emphasis during the offseason. June graduates Coco Miller and Tal Sahar made more than half of the threes for last year’s team. Aliceah Hernandez, a 5-9 junior guard who shot 41.9% from three last year, still needs medical clearance before returning from the knee injury she suffered at midseason.
“I just got off the phone with her and we’re still trying to figure things out,” Henrickson said. “Practicing on an outdoor court wasn’t an option for her, but she has been working out at home on a basketball court and, in fact, is chomping at the bit to get back here.”
Veterans Mira Shulman and Lauren Lee also have taken advantage of the extra shooting. Shulman, a 5-9 senior forward, shot 52.9% from three (9-for-17) and 91.7% from the free-throw line (11-12) when injuries thrust her into the lineup for seven starts last year. Lee, a 5-11 junior guard, has already logged 56 starts for the Gauchos.
“Mira looks a lot stronger and Lauren has been shooting the ball better than she has in all of her career,” Henrickson observed.
Three newcomers are also bringing a lot of offense. Doris Jones, a first-team All-State JC player in 2019, surpassed the 1,000-point mark in just two seasons at Diablo Valley Community College. The 5-9 senior, who started her career at the University of Houston, worked out with the Gauchos last year as a redshirt.
Anya Choice, a 5-8 guard from Santa Rosa, and Alyssa Marin, a 5-9 guard from Camarillo, were both prolific shooters in high school. Choice, who was one of five finalists for California’s Ms. Basketball Award, averaged nearly 30 points per game for Cardinal Newman High while making nine threes in one game alone. Marin sank 81 threes for Camarillo last year while scoring at a 21.6-point clip.
“Our two freshmen are really showing maturity and pace and intensity,” Henrickson said. “Their ability to score will really help us.”
Two transfers who are set to redshirt, 6-foot senior Megan Anderson and 6-2 junior Taylor Mole, are also major three-point threats.
Anderson set school records at San Jose State for three-point percentage in both a season (43.8%) and in a career (40.3%). Her 185 career threes left her just 14 shy of another school mark. Mole shot 34.8% from three last season while playing in 27 of Colorado State’s 30 games.
Mole recently endured a two-day trip from her home in Tasmania to get to UCSB.
“She hadn’t even seen the Thunderdome before Monday,” Henrickson said. “She told me, ‘Coach, I really like it.’”
Anderson and Mole could become eligible immediately if the NCAA approves a temporary transfer rule. It was proposed by several schools which have had their rosters depleted by players who’ve opted out of this season because of the coronavirus.
San Jose State is one of the team’s on UCSB’s preseason schedule. The Gauchos, who are tentatively set to open the season at the University of San Diego Tournament on Nov. 27, have also arranged nonconference games with Pepperdine, Cal Baptist and USC.
“It’s all still up in the air, though,” Henrickson said. “The Pac-12 is still considering some things that might affect our USC game, and we don’t even know who we’d be playing in San Diego. They’re still trying to figure out their numbers and the opt-outs.”
For now, however, the Gauchos are back operating inside the Thunderdome — and at full speed ahead.
“We’re testing twice a week (for the coronavirus),” Henrickson said. “John (McCutcheon, athletics director) and Kelly (Barsky, deputy athletics director) have done an amazing job of setting everything up. It’s like a full-time job on top of another full-time job for them.”
And it’s giving the Gauchos their best shot at playing basketball once again.