March 11, 2010
By MARK PATTON NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
UCSB's Mekia Valentine would've stood out on Wednesday even if she weren't 6-foot-4.
She had dyed her hair a fiery red and scrawled her tennis shoes with several memorials to her late mother, Lillian.
Valentine wore her heart on her sleeve the best she could in the sleeveless game of basketball, leading the Gauchos to an 82-54 victory over the University of Pacific in their Big West Conference Tournament opener at the Anaheim Convention Center.
'I love tournament time,' Valentine said after getting 20 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks in UCSB's biggest Big West Tournament win since 2003. 'It's right around my birthday, so it's really special to me.
'This is my first Big West, so I'm really excited about it.'
She's run the gamut of emotions the last month, missing a game at Cal State Northridge when she took ill just before the first anniversary of her mother's death.
'Everybody was really understanding,' Valentine said. 'Everybody really took into consideration that it was something that was very important to me, and I think no one realized how important until it kind of happened. Even I didn't realize.
'You'd think that after a year goes by, time would make things fade away.'
But the pain only sharpened for the junior transfer from Wake Forest as the date approached. And the better she played, the more it hurt.
Valentine was voted onto the All-Big West second team after leading the league in rebound average (9.1), blocks average (3.9) and field-goal percentage (.564) while scoring 12.2 points per game.
'It kind of hit home for me, setting records and playing well,' Valentine said. 'It was hard looking up into the stands and not seeing my mom there.
'She's in my mind all the time. My mom came to all my games. She was a really big part of my life. I think as time goes on, it gets a little bit harder for me to play without her being there.'
And so she brought Lillian onto the court with her on Wednesday, inscribing her shoes with her mother's initials, her birth and death years, the number of the Bible verse that was included in her obituary, and the phrase, 'A mother's love never dies.'
'That's the last thing I talked about with my mother before she died,' she said.
But Valentine also celebrated the March 6 birthday of her mother's youngest child, giving herself the gift of a new hair-do to signal a re-birth.
'Multi-talented, huh'' she said while fluffing up her bright curls.
The Tigers of Pacific must certainly think so, watching her make 8-of-12 shots to go with her game-leading rebounds and blocks. She ranks third nationally with a block average that's now risen to 4.1 per game. She might have even reached her first triple-double on Wednesday if coach Lindsay Gottlieb hadn't pulled her out for the last four minutes.
Better to save those next two blocks for the rest of what UCSB hopes will be a long tournament.
'She's a tremendous shot blocker,' Gottlieb said. 'She always says, 'People shoot it to my hands,' but there's a little bit of a feel to it, and athleticism. She has great timing.
'But even when she's not getting the seven, eight blocks, she's really doing a lot to change the game defensively, and it's a huge weapon for us. The rest of our players have a lot of confidence that they can get down and put some pressure on the ball because they know that they've got Mekia behind them.'
The futility of challenging the Gaucho center became clear to Pacific's Christina Thompson early in the second half when Valentine caught her shot right out of her hands.
'I had fouled right before it, so my goal was just to stay straight up ' but she shot it directly into my hands,' Valentine said. 'That's the first time I've ever done that. I was a little shocked ... I was like, 'Oh! I've got the ball! What do I do with it''
'I didn't want to turn it over, so I just held on for dear life.'
Life has felt that way at times this year for Valentine, being so far from her home in Greensboro, N.C. She's received in-season visits from her sister and aunts, but that's only made their absence more difficult 'when they've had to say goodbye.'
But the depression that cloaked Valentine this last month like a heavy fog did have its silver lining.
'It opened my eyes to the really good support system I've got here,' she said. 'I pride myself about being really tough, but the anniversary of her death taught me to let my guard down a little bit, and let that support be there.'
And the only guard she was putting up on Wednesday was to thwart those who challenged the new family of Mekia Valentine.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org