Eight months after the season was cut short due to the pandemic, Cal State Fullerton women’s basketball will travel to Westwood to face off against UCLA for the first game of the season on Wednesday.
As the postseason ended abruptly, CSUF finished with a record of 17-14, its first winning season in almost 30 years. The Titans went even in the conference at 8-8 as the sixth seed in the conference tournament where they eventually lost to fourth seed Hawaii in the quarterfinals before the tournament was canceled.
During the offseason, the team added three freshmen: center Ashlee Lewis of Cerritos, and guards Gabi Vidmar and Bella Stratford, both from Australia. Lewis was able to practice with the team as soon as possible as she lives fairly close to Fullerton. However, due to international travel bans to the United States, Vidmar and Stratford were not able to practice with the team until the beginning of November and had to self-quarantine as soon as they arrived.
CSUF junior forward Amiee Book has taken on a leadership role on the team, and said she was optimistic on how Vidmar and Stratford were able to adapt with the team despite the limited practice time.
“They’re catching up really quickly, which is nice. They’ve been doing their own practices back over in Australia because (COVID-19) is a lot better over there, so they’re pretty up to speed,” Book said.
In May, guard Raina Perez transferred from CSUF to join the Wolfpack at North Carolina State. As the Titans’ conference-leading scorer and Big West’s player of the year, she averaged 20.3 points per game and 5.3 rebounds last season.
To add to Fullerton’s loss, senior guard Taylor Turney was announced as part of the preseason all-Big West team on Nov. 10, but head coach Jeff Harada said that as of Friday, Turney decided to opt out of the upcoming season due to concerns regarding COVID-19.
Book, who is now the leading scorer for the team, said she is going to step up to the challenge. Last season, Book averaged 12.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 34.3% from the 3-point line.
“I’ve been working hard this offseason, so I’m just putting it all together and just transferring it out onto the court,” Book said.
Despite the loss of two crucial components of the team, Harada said he sees the new opportunities for players to gain valuable experience.
“It’s an opportunity for us to spread the ball around more on offense, players can step up with more opportunities and our young players will get thrown into the fire a little bit earlier,” Harada said. “We’re not a one-man team, basketball is a team sport, and that’s why you recruit a bench, that’s why you recruit multiple players, and we’re confident in all of our players that we have, and I’m excited to see what they will do with this opportunity.”
Book echoed Harada’s sentiment that the roles will be open for more members, and that the team has a different identity heading into the season.
“We look a lot different than we did last year,” Book said. “We’ve been competing, a lot of practice, and people are finally stepping up into their new roles and taking on different responsibilities, which has been exciting to see. People are gaining confidence, and it’s exciting to see, I’m excited to be out on the court with them and compete.”
UCLA is opening its season following a 26-5 overall record, where it was the second seed in the Pac-12 postseason. After a first-round bye and defeating seventh seed USC, UCLA lost to third seed Stanford, 67-51, in the semifinals.
The Bruins will have returning senior forward Michaela Onyenwere who led the team in scoring and rebounding with an average of 18.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Onyenwere was also on the AP’s Third-Team All American and a top five finalist for the Cheryl Miller award for the nation’s best small forward. Also returning for the Bruins is senior guard Japreece Dean who was second in scoring at 13.6 points per game and led the team at 5.5 assists per game. Both Onyenwere and Dean were named to the All-Pac-12 team last season and Onyenwere was named to the preseason’s All-Pac-12 team.
The last time CSUF faced off against UCLA in the regular season was in 2008, where the Titans lost, 78-62.
Harada said that wherever the outcome of the match goes, the experience against a powerhouse in the Pac-12 is what matters to him.
“We’re not looking at whether or not we win or we lose, whatever the outcome is, it’s not going to determine our season either way. We just want to go in there and worry more about ourselves, rather than UCLA, and understand that we’re playing against the player, not the name on the jersey. And if we go out there and compete, and as long as we’re not intimidated, we compete, we play hard — I’ll be happy, no matter what the outcome,” Harada said.
CSUF’s record was above .500 for away games last season at 8-7, finishing 4-3 against non-conference opponents.
Although last season came with a positive record, Harada said that because of uncertainties of a full upcoming season, the team is putting its focus on staying positive mentally and physically, and to not take the opportunity to play for granted.
The Titans will have home games before 2020 ends as Fullerton will play its first home game against UNLV on Dec. 2 and then face off against San Diego on Dec. 8.
Tip off against UCLA is scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Pauley Pavilion on Wednesday. There will be no fans in attendance and the game will be broadcast live online through the Pac-12 website.