Women’s basketball downs UC Irvine, clinches conference

ALEXA FONTANILLA / AGGIE

Irvine unable to match the Aggies’ hot start

The UC Davis women’s basketball team entered the final home game of the season with the momentum of its four game win-streak intact. With the UC Irvine Anteaters coming on the heels of a two-game losing streak, but 9-4 record overall in conference play, the Aggies went into the game knowing their opponent would not go down without a fight. After honoring their departing seniors, who were stepping onto Bob Hamilton Court for the last time of their collegiate careers, the ball was tipped off and the team was ready to play.
It was an emotional game for the Aggie seniors and their teammates alike. Though there is more basketball to be played, knowing that they would not return to the floor where they spent the last four years of their playing careers bore bittersweet emotions. For senior forward Dani Nafekh, it was a time of reflection.

“I’m trying not to think of it as the last time,” Nafekh said. “I know it is, but it just was so much fun. I just tried to appreciate being out there with my team. We were thinking of it as the championship game rather than our last time. I just thought that we were very focused and ready to play.”

Senior forward Pele Gianotti echoed Nafekh’s emotions, saying that while it was fun, she tried to wear her emotions on her sleeve once the ball tipped off.

“Before I was getting a little emotional,” Gianotti said. “But, once you’re on the court, you’re there, and you’re just doing what you’ve always done the last four years. So, it’s not super different when you’re on the court.”

Once the game began, an apparent leg injury to senior guard Rachel Nagel left the entire arena silent — though Nagel would make another appearance at the end of the game to great applause. The team responded to the early scare in red-hot fashion by opening up with a 15-0 run and a 20-6 advantage going into the second. Nafekh would lead the initial charge with eight points in the first quarter, including two early buckets from downtown. Head coach Jennifer Gross praised her team’s fiery start, crediting its work on the defensive end dictating the rest of the game.

“I really liked our defensive energy from the start,” Gross said. “We started the game getting six or seven stops in a row. Obviously, when our defense is strong it’s fueling our offense.That’s the way we always like to think about it — our defense fueling our offense.”
Despite UC Irvine’s first quarter struggles, the team showed life in the second quarter, cutting an early 16-point deficit in half on a layup by freshman guard Autumn Baumgartner. The Aggies would respond with haste, however, extending their lead to 15 points going into halftime. According to Gianotti, the team’s fighting spirit and ability to stick together were key to keeping its composure as the Anteaters tried to fight their way back into the game.

“The coaches called the timeout and they really sat us down and said, ‘This is how you want the game to be. Do you want it to be stressful?’” Gianotti said. “No. I did not. It’s just kind of a refocusing. We never give up.”

Irvine would respond with intensity in the second of play, but the Aggies refused to relent. After a late-game surge, the Aggies early onslaught proved insurmountable, ending the game with the 66-56 victory. Though the first-half defense built the early lead, it was the second half defense that prevented the Anteaters from getting back into the game.

Nafekh led the team in scoring with 17 points to go with two assists, three boards, and two steals. Gianotti had 11 points to go with seven rebounds. The rest of the team provided a balanced effort, with Morgan Bertsch chipping in with 10 points and 2 rebounds and freshman guard Cierra Hall getting nine points off the bench. Junior guard Kourtney Eaton helped drive the offensive effort with seven assists on the night to go with six points.

Despite securing the top spot on the Big West Conference standings, the team sees opportunity for growth during its final two games on the road. Knowing that nothing is set in stone come March, Gross is making a special effort to make sure that her team stays hungry as it sets it sights toward March Madness.

“From day one, we said that every single day, we’re going to keep improving,” Gross said. “I look at that game, I still feel like there’s a lot of areas that they can continue to get better. The cool thing about this team is that they recognize that. They come back to work every single day ready to improve, and we want to be at our very best come tournament time.”

The Aggies take their winning streak on the road tonight at 7 p.m., where they will face Cal State Fullerton before heading down to UC Riverside for one last regular season game on Saturday, March 3 at 4 p.m.

 

Written by: Bradley Geiser — sports@theaggie.org