November 5, 2009

Valentine left her heart in Santa Barbara

Nov. 5, 2009

By MARK PATTON NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER

Just four days after last Valentine's Day, UCSB basketball redshirt Mekia Valentine got her heart broken.

On the other end of the country, her beloved mother, Lillian, finally lost her long battle with cancer.

And as the Gauchos headed north to play Pacific and UC Davis, Mekia went home to New River, Va., for the services, wondering if she'd ever find her way back to Santa Barbara.

"I was really skeptical of what I was going to do with myself, and how I was going to handle it," she said. "But I came back, and seven of my teammates were waiting for me as I got off the plane.

"I can't tell you the feeling. I knew at that moment that I would come back. It was really me trusting them, that they were there for me."

She was there for them on Wednesday night, making her Thunderdome debut in a 63-54 exhibition win over Westmont College, scoring 28 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.

Valentine's Day couldn't arrive a moment too soon for UCSB, which needs a replacement for All-Big West Conference center Jenna Green.

The 6-foot-4 Valentine was an Atlantic Coast Conference All-Freshman pick for Wake Forest in 2007, torching rival North Carolina State in one game for 16 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots.

She started 30 games in two seasons for the Demon Deacons, averaging 5.9 points and 4.7 rebounds.

But interpersonal relationships are crucial to Valentine, whose late mother worked in nursing and social services. And so she decided to leave the cold, hard world of ACC basketball and transfer to UCSB, where she described her new coach, Lindsay Gottlieb as, "Caring, dedicated, and amazing."

Athletes get the five-star treatment in the ACC, but Valentine said that one of her favorite moments as a Gaucho was "Living on my teammates' couch the first week I met them."

When Gottlieb counts the ways she loves Valentine, she doesn't recite statistics.

"Whatever points or rebounds she accumulates this year, that will never tell the story of Mekia Valentine, her competitiveness, and what she brings to the table," she said.

It was how she dealt with the anxiety of redshirting last season under NCAA transfer rules.

"I remember the first game last year, my eyes were watering up when I truly realized that I was sitting out," Valentine said. "Every practice and game last year, I wanted to be a part of it. I'm just going to be more excited to be more a part of it now."

Gottlieb said Valentine made "a huge impact" during last year's practices, and that she even had to tone her down at times, especially with Green and Kat Suderman nursing injuries all season.

"Because of the circumstances, Jenna couldn't practice and Kat couldn't practice, and when they did, I'd tell Mekia, 'Don't go full-out,'" she said. "We were trying to accomplish different things so practices weren't necessarily, 'Blue team against gold team! Get after it!'"

Chris Spencer, a 6-1 senior forward, went through the anxieties after transferring to UCSB from Wisconsin.

"That first game is nerve-wracking because you have this moment when you realize, 'Wow, I haven't done this for awhile,'" she said. "But practice habits really do translate to games, and I'm real confident in Mekia because I know her practice habits are so consistent."

And that's included having "a few" of her shots swatted by Valentine during practice.

"We do have a little thing going with each other, in keeping each other encouraged," Spencer added. "I think she does a good job of being a presence and at the same time, encouraging other players."

And that goes back to a plane trip back from Virginia.

"I went through a very tough year," Valentine said. "But I feel like what I lost last year ... I gained in teammates, in sisters, and with the community here. This place is impeccable. There's no other place like this.

"I cannot thank this community and this team enough for what they've done for me, for helping me regain what I've lost."

She got her first win before ever taking the court.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: mpatton@newspress.com