UC Santa Barbara coach Bonnie Henrickson knows how it feels to be caught short.
She was foiled by the margin of mere millimeters on Sarah Porter’s three-point miss at the end of a 56-55 defeat to Long Beach State in the 2017 Big West Conference Women’s Basketball final.
“I thought it would be a little bit short,” Henrickson said during the post-game interview, “but she got a good look at it.”
Her Gauchos came up short again in both bodies and inches when they suffered through a 7-14 season during the COVID-19 pandemic-marred campaign of 2020-2021.
“The COVID year we played with just eight,” Henrickson recalled. “Ila (Lane) opted out and Natalia (Bruening) got hurt, so we were 5-foot-10 inside. We had to shoot a bunch of threes that year.”
But UCSB will stand tall on the court and wide on the bench when it tips off the 2022-2023 season at Santa Clara at 4 p.m. Monday. The Gauchos’ home opener will follow on Thursday when Pepperdine visits the Thunderdome for a 7 p.m. contest.
The Gauchos’ stature in the Big West has never loomed larger during Henrickson’s eight seasons in the league. Her colleagues picked them to finish second to only Hawai‘i in the league race.
They have a good shot at becoming the best team during her eight years at UCSB.
Back in the Fast Lane
It begins with Lane, a 6-4 senior. She has been selected to the Lisa Leslie Award Watch List as one of the nation’s top centers. But it doesn’t stop there.
“I think it’s the best depth that we’ve had — the quality of depth,” Henrickson said. “At that three-four spot, we’re as big as we’ve been. We’re 6-foot, 6-2, 6-1, 6-foot.
“I like our commitment to improvement, too, in cleaning up little things, and getting better every day. They play hard. The energy is good. They celebrate each other and they’re fun to watch.”
Figuring out playing time might be her biggest challenge. She spread out the minutes among 11 players during two exhibition routs of NAIA schools Life Pacific and Hope International, and that was with 6-4 backup center Laurel Rockwood sidelined with an injury.
“I do think we can go a little bit deeper than we have,” Henrickson said. “It’ll be determined by who continues to improve and produce.”
Lane is sure to be the Gauchos’ centerpiece. She nearly averaged a double-double last year with averages of 12.1 points and 9.7 rebounds after having opted out of the 2020-2021 season because of COVID-19.
She stayed in shape during her hiatus by working out with Buck Matthews, her AAU mentor since seventh grade. He also coached her to All-State honors at Woodside Priory Prep in Portola Valley.
“They worked hard together, and he would communicate with me about, ‘What else do you want her to work on?’” Henrickson said. “She had her own ideas, too, and we communicated really well about that.”
It did take a while for Lane to get reacclimated to playing in scrimmages and games last year.
“All of a sudden it’s crowded down there,” Henrickson said. “Because of the pandemic, he could only crowd her so much. They were the only two in the gym.
“For sure, early, she was sped up and rushed it, and was out of sorts, for use of a better word. Then she really found her rhythm and found composure. She played much better in traffic and in the paint during the second half of the year than she did during the first half.”
Plugging in at Power Forward
Her offense should be enhanced, she added, by the addition of Washington transfer Alexis Whitfield. The 6-2 sophomore gives the Gauchos a second post threat they didn’t have last season.
“She has really good vision without the ball,” Henrickson said. “She cuts to open gaps and spaces, and that’s valuable. She reads angles on the glass. She’ll rebound. She’s physical.
“She’ll slow down on a drive and just finish off a read, which is what we didn’t do well last year. She’s really added tremendous value for us.”
Tatyana Modawar, a 6-2 senior, gives Henrickson some versatility on the post.
“She’ll be the hybrid five until Laurel gets back,” she said. “She has played a backup five and she’s a good screener. She has good feet and a three-point shot.
“She just has to get on the glass and make some shots and she’ll get minutes.”
Alexis Tucker, a 5-11 guard, boosted UCSB’s offense last year after transferring from Texas Tech. She averaged 11.0 points and 4.1 rebounds last year, but Henrickson expects an even bigger senior season from the former four-star recruit from Junipero Serra High in Gardena.
“Alexis played primarily with her back to the basket at Texas Tech, and we wanted her and needed her and recruited her to play facing the basket,” Henrickson said. “She wasn’t comfortable or confident with that initially, although she did get better and better with that last year.
“When she got back in August, we felt she had really turned the corner with her decision-making on things like, ‘Where’s my angle? Do I read? Can I suck up a secondary defender? Where do I find my check-out?’”
UCSB’s big guard line includes Taylor Mole, a 6-2 senior from Australia. She shot nearly 42% from the three-point line two years ago when she averaged 14.3 points per game. She shot 37% from three last year while coming off the bench.
Making a Point
The Gauchos return 10 players from last year, although their starting point guard for the last five years won’t be one of them. The NCAA allowed all-leaguer Danae Miller to play a fifth season last year because of the pandemic-shortened 2020-2021 season.
UCSB has both a big point guard (5-9 junior Alyssa Marin out of Camarillo High) and a smaller one (5-6 sophomore Callie Cooper) to fill that void. Henrickson has also been rotating two-guard Anya Choice, a 5-8 junior “and three-level scorer,” into that role.
“Alyssa and Anya played a lot their freshman year during the pandemic, and certainly got quality minutes last year and had significant roles,” she said. “They’ve been asked to do more every year, and they’ve both responded.”
The ultra-quick Cooper totaled 12 assists in the two exhibition games to lead all Gauchos.
“Callie has done a really good job of playing little,” Henrickson said. “We told her when we recruited her, ‘The best point guards I’ve ever had were 5-foot-4, so being small doesn’t scare me. So be little and play little. Get underneath that size because they can’t guard you. They can’t stay in front of you.’
“She’s really starting to understand, ‘How do I find Jess? How do I find Taylor? How do I find all those shooters on the outside? How do I find Anya? And then I can drop one to Ila when I suck somebody up.’”
National Three-Point Leader
The “Jess” she referred to — 5-8 freshman Jessica Grant — is perhaps the most intriguing addition to UCSB’s roster. She topped all high school players nationally last year by making 162 three-pointers with a 42% accuracy. She also set a state record with 486 career threes. Her play led Mission Hills High in San Marcos to the CIF Southern California Open Division final.
She made 8-of-13 threes (61.5%) while scoring 26 points in the Gauchos’ recent exhibition games.
“It seems to be effortless for Jessica to catch and shoot threes,” Henrickson said. “She’s also really starting to understand how to move without the ball. As the ball is rotated, she’ll hunt passes and hunt opportunities behind the line, whereas early it was so fast, she got caught watching, which is absolutely normal.
“She’s also better off the dribble than her teammates think.”
Skylar Burke, a 5-8 freshman from Couer d’Alene, Idaho, has also made a good first impression on her new coach.
“Skylar is an energizer bunny,” Henrickson said. “She’s on the floor for every loose ball. She’s the first one to get an offensive rebound in practice. She wants to get up and guard. She wants to guard the ball hard.”
Kennedy Johnson, an athletic 5-11 sophomore, gives her another guard who can “create havoc and cause opponents to make poor decisions.”
Altogether, it gives Henrickson confidence that she can make a deep run this season.
“The season is long,” she said. “We play 20 conference games now, so sometimes we’ll go Thursday, Saturday and Monday. The quality of that depth is what will really matter.”
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.