Santa Barbara Quietly Becomes Powerhouse

Times Staff Writer

If you're looking for the best women's college basketball program in the Southland you have to go northwest, about two hours up the coast from Los Angeles.

And calling UC Santa Barbara a Southland school is a stretch, even if it shares the 805 area code with Ventura.

But over the last five seasons, only Pepperdine, with its 107-46 record, comes close to the success enjoyed by Santa Barbara, 131-28. And the Gauchos have won NCAA tournament games, something the Waves have not.

Still, Santa Barbara -- which has run off eight consecutive 20-victory seasons and appeared in seven consecutive NCAA tournaments -- remains a secret to many basketball aficionados beyond the West Coast.

That could change this year.

The Gauchos are positioned to make a run at the national top 10 and hope to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time. Being the host school for first- and second-round NCAA tournament games might help.

"Can this be a top-10 program? I can envision it," Coach Mark French said. "To have that happen, we have to be ready to play right off the bat, because we have a really good nonconference schedule. For our circumstances, it's absolutely essential. We need to play a great RPI schedule before we get to the Big West [Conference].

"After that, it's how much can we improve between January and February, keep going in the right direction, be at our best and pull off a couple of upsets in the NCAA tournament. Certainly, we have felt we've been pretty close to doing that the last couple years."

French has reasons for optimism. Santa Barbara has four starters among seven players back from last season's 27-5 squad, including 6-8 senior center Lindsay Taylor, the Big West Conference player of the year, and 6-2 junior forward Kristen Mann, a first-team All-Big West selection who played last summer with the gold medal-winning USA team at the FIBA World Championships for Young Women in Croatia.

French also welcomes two transfers -- 5-7 senior April McDivitt, from Tennessee, who will start at point guard, and 6-6 junior forward-center Kate Bauman, via Iowa State, who can either come off the bench to spell Taylor or line up beside her to help with rebounding.

"I think I will draw a lot from my experience at Tennessee," said McDivitt, who sat out last season after transferring. "I've gone to two Final Fours, which was a great experience for me. Many people don't get that in their whole life. I'm very fortunate to say I've done that.

"My experience and leadership, coming from the point guard position, is important. And I do feel that I fit in. They had two point guards graduate last year, and that spot was open."

Bauman missed more playing time than McDivitt. She became ill at Iowa State and lost half of her sophomore year. She red-shirted the next season, then decided she wanted to come to California, and had to sit out another season because of the transfer.

The Santa Barbara campus, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean, was a great selling point for Bauman. But so was French.

"He doesn't just care about you as a basketball player, he cares about everything," Bauman said. " ... What [French] says he's going to do, he does. What he tells you he wants from you, that's what he wants. There's no way around it."

Adding to the Gauchos' depth are two freshmen. Jenna Green, a 6-4 center, blocked 532 shots in her four years at Archbishop Mitty High in San Jose. Erin O'Bryan, a 5-7 guard, was the Arizona Gatorade state high school player of the year.

Taylor, who averaged 16.3 points and 7.5 rebounds, and who nearly got Santa Barbara to the Sweet 16 last season with a 26-point effort in a 72-68 Midwest subregional loss to Texas Tech, is delighted she won't have to do everything herself.

"Our newcomers, April and Kate, are going to contribute a lot," Taylor said. "They are very competitive and intense players. That's already helped us, even in the free play and scrimmages we've had. And our freshmen are really talented. Plus we have a lot of experience. That could help carry us further in the tournament.

"We have to see how practice goes and if we can jell. But we can definitely be a top 10 team during the season."

Santa Barbara won't back into any high rankings. The schedule starts Saturday with a first-round game in the preseason WNIT against San Diego. There are home dates with Arizona, Ohio State and Mississippi State, and visits to Purdue and Cincinnati. That should prepare Santa Barbara for its run at a ninth regular-season conference title in a row, and the ensuing Big West tournament. Should they make the NCAA field of 64, the Gauchos will be at home for the first and second rounds.

"I am more excited about this season than any other," French said. "We have a great team, a great schedule, and the notion that we could be playing at home in the first and second round of the tournament seems like a karmic coming together of some really cool things. Now all we have to do is play. And that will be the fun part."

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