As the winter quarter began, the Aggies entered the toughest stretch of their season.
By the end of this weekend, they exited that stretch ranked second in the Big West Conference.
Despite playing four games in eight days, the Aggies finished strong with wins against UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly, teams who were selected to finish first and third respectively in the Big West.
“It was the hardest stretch of the season,” said coach Sandy Simpson. “It’s not just the lack of rest but the lack of prep-time. Despite it, our energy in practice has been incredible. I’ve been really proud of the team.”
The wins did not come easy for the Aggies as they battled to the last minute in each of the weekend’s contests.
Thursday – UC Davis 54, UCSB 49
When two teams picked to finish first and second in league square off, a victory goes a long way towards a conference championship.
This time, the Aggies came out on the winning end.
Facing most likely their toughest conference opponent of the season, the Aggies responded well, holding on to beat the Gauchos by a score of 54-49.
“It came down to desire,” said junior forward Paige Mintun. “We wanted this so bad from past years because they’re the big name in our conference. We knew that we could beat them and we did.”
A win against a team of UCSB’s caliber is impressive especially considering the context.
The Aggies shot just 37 percent from the floor and grabbed 19 rebounds compared to 42 percent shooting and 46 boards for the Gauchos. In fact, the Gauchos had nearly as many offensive rebounds (16) as the Aggies had total rebounds.
Despite this disparity, the Aggies pulled out the victory.
“In the end, any good team that wins a championship wins some games when they’re not at their best,” Simpson said. “I’d like to think that this is the start of us showing that we can win the type of game where we’re not clicking offensively. Sometimes you just have to find a way to win.”
The road the Aggies took to victory was one paved by stifling defense and aggressive offense.
UCSB committed 27 turnovers compared to just 11 for UC Davis while the Gauchos made only four free-throw attempts to the Aggies’ 12.
“Turnovers and rebounds are offsetting statistics,” Simpson said. “We played aggressive defense but we didn’t bail them out by fouling. If we can have a good turnover differential then it works out in our favor.”
Saturday – UC Davis 77, Cal Poly 72
Playing their fourth game in eight days, the Aggies ran the risk of coming out flat against the Mustangs.
As it turns out, the meaning of the word flat isn’t in the Aggies’ vocabulary.
UC Davis’ high-octane style of play gave Cal Poly fits for most of the game as the Aggies scored 22 points off of 25 Mustang turnovers en-route to a 77-72 victory.
“We’re best when our defense drives our offense,” said guard Haylee Donaghe. “We run such a high-energy trapping defense that we get those tips and steals and it really gives us the energy and drive to score on the other end. If we keep bringing the energy consistently we’ll be able to continue to feed off of our defense.”
An encouraging sign for the Aggies was that they pulled out the victory despite the fact that Mintun was not at her best.
One of the game’s key matchups pitted Mintun against Mustang star Kristina Santiago. Santiago came away with 29 points, eight boards and five steals compared to six rebounds and 4 points on 2-for-13 shooting by Mintun.
As a result, the Aggies looked to their bench for reinforcement.
Four UC Davis players scored in double-figures including Heidi Heintz and Vicki Deely who shot a combined 11-for-11 from the field.
Deely’s game, which included 12 points and six rebounds in just 14 minutes, was particularly impressive for the Aggies.
“Sometimes you just have to let somebody like that go out there and play,” Simpson said. “She’s a matchup nightmare because her game is to be a little bit of a bull in a china shop but she can also shoot the three. She’s something special.”
The Aggies now have five days of rest before traveling to face UC Irvine on Thursday. Due to their motivation, the Aggies aren’t the least bit worried about losing momentum.
“We’re a really motivated group of athletes so it won’t be a problem for us to go out and play hard every night,” Donaghe said. “The energy and excitement is so high right now. It’s fun to win.”
MARK LING can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.