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Davis, California

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Column: Making progress

UC Davis women’s basketball coach Sandy Simpson knows it might take a little while.

After his team’s 71-67 loss to UC Riverside in the Big West Conference finals on Saturday, Simpson urged his team to focus on the big picture.

“I told the players time will give them perspective on what they’ve accomplished to this point,” Simpson said.

Going into the season, the Aggies had several goals they wanted to accomplish.

They wanted to win the Big West regular season title. They wanted the No. 1 seed and the two-round bye that came with it. They also wanted a win in the semifinals of the tournament to advance to the championship game.

UC Davis did all of that.

There were two more goals, though – a Big West Tournament title and an NCAA Tournament berth. Unfortunately, the Aggies weren’t able to cross off those last two.

The fact is that even though they didn’t get what they ultimately wanted, the Aggies still had an excellent season, by far their best in the Division I era.

They went 8-0 at home in Big West games. They had a 20-win season. They won the regular season title outright and advanced to the tournament title game for the second time in only three years of Division I postseason eligibility.

The Aggies did all of that with incredible depth, something Simpson touched on before the season even began.

“We will have 12 in uniform and all can play and help us and will at some point this year,” Simpson said back in November. “In 32 years of coaching, I’ve been a part of maybe three or four other teams where I could say that.”

That depth led the Aggies to accomplish everything they did this season. The scary thing is most of that depth will be back next year.

UC Davis will only lose two players – Ashley Curry and sixth-year senior Haylee Donaghe, who has been a cornerstone of the Aggies’ success these past years.

Donaghe reflected on her career at UC Davis after the conference tournament.

“It’s been the best experience of my life playing college basketball,” Donaghe said. “Everyone associated with the program has made it an unbelievable experience. I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else. UC Davis is where I belong.”

Without Donaghe, the Aggies are still a favorite to earn one of the two top spots in the Big West and get back to the conference title game next year.

The Aggies return everyone else, including first-team All-Big West selection Paige Mintun and all-tournament performer Heidi Heintz.

The women’s basketball team wasn’t the only Aggie squad to impress in Anaheim.

The UC Davis men’s fourth-place regular season finish earned it a bye in the first round of the tournament. The Aggies then defeated Cal State Fullerton to advance to the semifinals – the furthest the men have ever gone.

Keep in mind the Aggies finished ninth two years ago. Last year, they came in at eighth and beat UC Irvine in the first round of the tournament to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time. This year, they went even further.

UC Davis’ run ended with a 76-62 loss to eventual conference winner UC Santa Barbara.

The Aggies came out flat in the first half of the semis, shooting just 4-for-22 in the first half. They didn’t roll over, though.

An improbable comeback put them to within five points of the Gauchos with just over 11 minutes remaining.

The Aggies couldn’t overcome their large first-half deficit, but scored 51 points in the second half after only tallying 11 in the first.

“Coach [Gary] Stewart set the tone at halftime,” senior Dominic Calegari said of the second-half turnaround. “We felt like we needed to get something going and needed to get it going in a hurry. We got more aggressive.”

Like the women’s team, the men will lose one of its big stars in Calegari, who has been a mainstay in the program for five years.

“[Calegari] has meant so much to our program and has been such a great representative of not only UC Davis, but college basketball and athletics in general,” Stewart said. “He’s a kid with the highest character and a team-first player. … He’s a joy to coach.”

While neither team could claim a tournament title, they still have much to be proud of.

The Aggie teams accumulated the highest number of total byes in the conference tournament with three. UC Davis was also one of only two schools to advance both men’s and women’s squads into the semifinal round.

The programs also have much to look forward to. The men return a slew of skillful ball-handlers and shooters like Joe Harden and Mark Payne.

Combine that with what the women will have back and it’s possible both teams could cut down the nets at the Honda Center one year from now.

MAX ROSENBLUM is already counting the days till next basketball season. However, the women’s season isn’t over yet. The Aggies will compete in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament this week. Contact him at sports@theaggie.org.

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