After getting the year off to a positive start with a women’s basketball victory over an old rival, UCSB is bracing for a showdown with a newer rival.
UC Riverside, the only team to deny Santa Barbara the Big West Conference championship in the last dozen years, comes into the Thunderdome on Sunday (Jan. 4) for a 2 p.m. game against the Gaucho women.
Both teams won their 2009 league openers Friday night by identical 66-48 scores – UCSB taking down Long Beach State at home and UCR’s Highlanders defeating Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
How intense is the Gaucho-Highlander rivalry? In their last meeting of the 2008 season, there was a heated confrontation that resulted in the ejection of three all-league players – UCSB’s Jessica Wilson and Kat Suderman, and UCR’s Seyram Gbewonyo.
The Gauchos have lost Wilson, the Big West player of the year, to graduation. Suderman, a senior center, has missed their last two games with back spasms. Gbewonyo, a 5’10” senior guard, is back with the Highlanders. She scored 18 points against Cal Poly. Also returning for her senior season is UCR’s 6’1″ center Kemie Nkele, who was named the player of the year in 2007 after leading the Highlanders to the conference title. Nkele sat out last season with a knee injury, and UCSB recaptured the crown. In this year’s preseason polls, the media and coaches favored Riverside to return to the top of the Big West.
“I’m excited they have who they have back and we have who we have,” said Gaucho guard Sha’Rae Gibbons, who had 14 points and six assists against Long Beach State. “We have the opportunity to go head-to-head, and may the best team win.”
A new figure in the rivalry is Lindsay Gottlieb, who has succeeded Mark French as UCSB’s head coach. She is familiar with John Margaritis, the coach who resurrected Riverside’s program. “They’re an excellent team,” Gottlieb said. “They’ve become recognized on a national level, as we are. Who wouldn’t want a rival coming into their gym for a big game?”
Riverside pulled off the biggest win by a Big West team in the preseason, a 50-47 upset of then-16th ranked Vanderbilt. Then the Highlanders went 0-4 on a road trip that began with a loss at No. 21 Arizona State. They bring a 5-8 overall record into Sunday’s game. The Gaucho women are 5-6. But as Gibbons said, “The Big West means a fresh start for all of us.”
The Gauchos got off to a good start against Long Beach. They took a 30-21 lead at halftime and played a solid final 20 minutes, shooting 50 percent from the floor and taking care of the ball against the 49ers’ full-court pressure. Senior guard Lauren Pedersen was UCSB’s high scorer with 16 points. Her 3-point basket at the end of the first half was an energizing force. Wisconsin transfer Chris Spencer, playing her fifth game since becoming eligible, came off the bench and hit a pair of 3-pointers while leading the Gauchos in rebounds with seven.
LONG BEACH MEN WIN: UCSB was unable to sustain its hot early shooting in the Big West men’s basketball opener at Long Beach State. After jumping out to a 26-19 lead, the Gauchos went cold, missing 14 of 15 shots. The 49ers came back and defeated them 76-64. The Gauchos (6-7 overall) will play Sunday afternoon at UC Riverside.