Coach Bonnie Henrickson plans to pick up the pace with a potent perimeter game
Coach Bonnie Henrickson is back at the drawing board with her UC Santa Barbara women’s basketball team.
The two heads of the class have both left for graduate school.
She’ll be counting on plenty of underclassmen when she opens her ninth season with the Gauchos at the Thunderdome on Tuesday at 7 p.m. against the University of San Francisco.
“We’re young, we have a lot of new faces, but there’s talent in that group,” Henrickson said. “It’s now just learning how to play together.
“You can’t ever fault their effort. They’re unselfish and have all those things in your DNA that give you a chance. They’re a fun group to coach.”
UCSB, 21-12 last year, just missed a trip to the NCAA Tournament when it lost a 61-59 thriller to Hawai’i in the Big West Conference championship game.
The Gauchos must soldier on without all-leaguers Ila Lane and Alexis Tucker.
Lane, a 6-foot-4 center, became the first student-athlete ever accepted to Cal Berkeley’s Master of Social Welfare Program. Tucker, a 5-11 guard, is also now in graduate school and playing for 18th-ranked Florida State.
Their departures prompted Henrickson to meet with her only three returning seniors — guards Anya Choice and Alyssa Marin, and forward Alexis Whitfield — before they left for summer break.
“I just told them, ‘I’m going to need you three to be solid,’” she said. “ ‘You don’t have to be great every night, but you need to be solid … And if you can continue that through the course of the season, and if all these new faces and young faces improve, we have a chance to do some special things.’
“I’ve been pleased. They’re good leaders in that they always go hard. Their attitudes are great. They’re good culture kids. They want to get it right.”
Marin averaged 8.3 points per game last year, shooting 35.8% from three-point range, and 2.8 assists.
“She’ll be a pass-first point guard for a while, and then recognize that, ‘It’s time for me to make a play,’” Henrickson said. “She’ll draw a foul or hit a big bucket when we need it.
“There’s a work ethic she brings to the gym every day. You’re never, ever going to fault her effort. I never have, and this is her fourth year.”
Choice, like Marin, has been a starter since her freshman year. She averaged 7.4 points and 2.6 assists last season.
“She’s done a little work on her shots and getting her release point elevated,” Henrickson said. “When she’s missed, it’s typically because it was flat.
“We’ve challenged her to be a three-level scorer and get more into her midrange. She’s explosive enough and can get to the rim, but there are times she needs to pull up. That has been much better.”
Choice, she added, has established herself as UCSB’s best on-ball defender.
Whitfield, a 6-3 transfer from the University of Washington, asserted herself as a top reserve during her first season with the Gauchos. She averaged 6.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
She’ll be a starter this season, Henrickson said, while most likely pairing with 6-4 junior college transfer Flora Goed on the front line.
“The sky is the limit for Whit,” she said. “She’s the most talented kid we have in the gym.
“Her challenge is to be a more consistent three-point shooter, which will make her harder to guard. She’s versatile enough to play the three, the four and the five — wherever we can get an advantage at those spots.
“At the five, it would be to take advantage of her speed and quickness. She’s explosive. She’s strong.”
Goed comes from Casper College of Wyoming, by way of Vienna, Austria.
“She’s a really skilled, international player,” Henrickson said. “She’s a good passer out of a high-post action and she’s gotten a lot stronger in finishing around the rim.
“We bring in guys every day to play against her, and one of them is really long and lanky. He challenges her with her ball placement at the rim and being able to finish off the glass.”
Injuries have taken their toll on UCSB’s front line. Cayla Williams, a 6-2 transfer from the University of Richmond, is out for the season. Bella Barrett, a 6-foot freshman from Arizona, may also have to redshirt.
Laurel Rockwood, a 6-4 junior, and Analillia Cabuena, a 6-2 junior, are both coming off injuries.
“Laurel is in better shape, but she just hasn’t had much of a chance to play,” Henrickson said. “She was in a boot for most of last year.
“Cabuena wasn’t cleared until about a month ago, and she’s still trying to get the speed and the quickness back.”
The Inside Scoop
Last year’s team revolved its offense around Lane in the post. The Gauchos will have a different look this season.
“Ila was so good around the rim that she drew so much traffic down there,” Henrickson said. “Whit is not going to sit in post-ups at 6-3 — she’s going to pull them away from the basket. And Flora is skilled enough to get you away from the rim a little bit.
“Laurel is working on her face-up game to pull people away, too. So that style will be a little bit different, and the pace up and down will get us a little bit deeper in the bench.
“We feel good where we’re at rotation-wise, and then getting some more depth in that group.”
A lot of that good feeling comes from Olivia Bradley, a 6-1 freshman from Adelaide, Australia. She represented her country at the 2022 U17 FIBA World Cup in Hungary and also starred for the Eastern Mavericks in Australia’s National Basketball League.
Bradley averaged 26 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and five assists at the Nike Tournament of Champions last season.
“She has the chance to be really special,” Henrickson said. “She’s a three-level scorer, finishes at the rim, shoots a great in-rhythm three, and has a good mid-range game.
“She can get into a pull-up left and right just effortlessly for a young kid. She attacks and can get downhill.
“She’s a big guard, but we can play her some even at the five, depending on the matchups.”
UCSB is deeper in the backcourt. One of two sophomores — either Jessica Grant or Skylar Burke — will join Marin and Choice in the starting lineup. The other will be one of the first guards off the bench.
Grant made last year’s Big West All-Freshman team after making 39.4% of her threes.
“She is a really phenomenal three-point shooter,” Henrickson said. “If she misses two in a row, everyone is like, ‘What happened?’
She’s challenged Grant to drive the ball more when a defender runs her off the three-point line.
“She’s been putting it on the floor and shooting more pull-ups, or getting to the rim, or passing out of it more than she did all of last year,” Henrickson said.
She toyed with the idea of starting Burke last year until she was sidelined by a hand injury.
“If there’s a 50-50 ball anywhere near her, it’s going to be hers,” Henrickson said. “She’s just that aggressive.
“She’s the best offensive-rebounding guard I’ve ever had. She’s a sparkplug — she and Whit changed the momentum whenever they entered the game last year.
“Skylar is also a much-improved three-point shooter, and much improved at mid-range.”
Mary McMorris, a sophomore transfer from Northern Arizona, will back up Marin at point guard.
“She’s really dynamic and explosive,” Henrickson said. “She has escape-ability. She can really get away and push the pace in transition.
“Without depth at the five, we really need to get up and down and pressure the ball defensively. And she’s a good on-ball defender.”
Kathleen Hutchens, a 5-9 junior from Arroyo Grande, provides additional depth.
Henrickson has been impressed with her entire recruiting class of freshmen.
She said Zoe Borter, a 6-foot forward from Beaverton, Ore., has displayed “the basketball IQ of a veteran.”
Kanani Coon, a 6-2 forward from Kelowna, Canada, “is really athletic, and has continued to get better at the two, three and four.”
UCSB was picked to finish fourth in the Big West race in a vote of league coaches — behind Hawai’i, UC Irvine and UC Davis.
“The league is good,” Henrickson said. “But for where we are right now, with so many new players, we’re just trying to get everything in for Tuesday, because San Francisco is good.
“But there’s a humility about this group that’s encouraging, because they’ll get better. This group wants to be coached.”