It’s safe to say the Aggies saved the best for last.
In coach Sandy Simpson’s final season, UC Davis made a late push, winning five straight and taking the Big West Conference Title.
UC Davis defeated UC Riverside in the semi-finals, and rounded out the tournament with a win over No. 1 seed Cal Poly in the championship game.
The wins moved the Aggies’ record to 24-8, 13-6 in Big West play, and with the tournament win, UC Davis will move on to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
“I’m so happy all of the hard work and commitment paid off,” Simpson said. “It’s the best possible gift [these players] could have given an old coach.”
Thursday – UC Davis 44, UC Riverside 39
Prior to winning the conference title, UC Davis had a semi-final matchup with UC Riverside.
The Highlanders had been the Aggies’ kryptonite.
UC Davis had lost its last four meetings with UC Riverside heading into Thursday’s contest, and things did not look good for the Aggies at the start.
UC Davis struggled to hit shots early in the game, and the Aggies went a full eight minutes without finding the net during the first half.
Fortunately for UC Davis, their defense was firing on all cylinders.
The Aggies forced 18 turnovers in the first frame, and despite shooting just 22 percent in the opening half, UC Davis entered the break behind by just five.
The Aggies continued their strong defensive effort in the second half, and heated up slightly on the offensive end to take the lead with seven minutes remaining.
UC Davis held on from there, locking down a 44-39 victory in a defensive struggle.
“I’ve been doing this for 33 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game where both teams were as dedicated defensively as in today’s game,” Simpson said. “Tonight both teams played 40 minutes of good defense. We had to claw and scratch not only to score, but to get a decent shot attempt.”
Senior Paige Mintun paced the Aggies offensively scoring 15 points, while junior Hana Asano added eight.
Saturday – UC Davis 66, Cal Poly 49
Prior to the championship game on Saturday, Simpson had difficulty relaxing.
“Last night I may have slept at one point, but I don’t remember falling asleep,” Simpson said. “I just thought everything was lining up so perfectly and I didn’t want to screw it up.”
Simpson will have no problem sleeping tonight because for the first time in program history, UC Davis is going to the NCAA National Championship Tournament.
The Aggies started hot against Cal Poly, jumping out to 16-point lead in the first frame, and taking a 13-point advantage to the break.
The Mustangs got things going in the second half, cutting the lead to five, but UC Davis responded on its way to a 17-point win.
Mintun once again led the Aggies, scoring 20 points and taking home tournament MVP honors.
Fellow senior Heidi Heintz was named to the all-tournament team after scoring 11 and tallying a game-high nine rebounds.
Sophomore Vicky Deely added 12 points.
Cal Poly star Rachel Clancy matched Mintun’s 20 points, but UC Davis was able to slow down the Mustangs as a team – holding them to 32 percent shooting.
The win gave the Aggies their first ever Big West Championship. It was a feeling the team will not forget.
“It’s so exciting,” said Heintz. “I don’t even know how to put it into words. With all the talk about Sandy [Simpson] in his final year, it means so much to us to send him out like this.”
The win also guarantees the Aggies a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“It feels so good to reach our goal, and to get to the NCAATournament,” said Mintun. “The thing we talked about at our team meeting was that we wanted to send [Simpson] off on a high note. It also means everything to [Heintz and me].”
UC Davis will find out its seed for the tournament today at 4 p.m. Charlie Creme’s ESPN.com Bracketology has the Aggies earning a 15 seed and playing UCLA, a team they lost to earlier in the year, in the first round.
TREVOR CRAMER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.