After three years of heartbreak, the Aggies are going dancing

After three years of heartbreak, the Aggies are going dancing

Photo Credits: KARIN HIGGinS / CUORTESY

UC Davis women’s basketball comes from behind to beat Hawai’i in Big West Title game

After winning its third straight Big West Conference regular season title but losing in the Big West championship game in two of the last three seasons, at long last the UC Davis women’s basketball team has punched its ticket to the Big Dance. Trailing by as much as 17 points in the Big West tournament championship game on Saturday night, the Aggies were not going to be denied the victory as they battled back to defeat the University of Hawai’i, 58-50, and earn UC Davis’ first NCAA tournament bid since 2011.

“It has been an amazing journey for our squad,” said Head Coach Jennifer Gross during the post-game trophy presentation. “And to finish it off in this way, it’s the sweetest thing I can imagine.”

For Gross, the weight of past tournament losses seemed to give this win so much more meaning. The Aggies were stunned in Anaheim in each of the previous two seasons, and after the first 20 minutes of play on Saturday, UC Davis looked as if it was going to be stunned again.

From the opening tip, Hawai’i came out of the gates firing on all cylinders. After senior forward Morgan Bertsch scored three quick baskets to put UC Davis up 6-5 early in the first quarter, the Rainbow Wahine rattled off a 17-4 run to take a 22-10 lead into the second frame. Hawai’i’ senior point guard Tia Kanoa torched the Aggie defense, tallying ten points to lead all scorers in the first.

“Our goal was to defend and rebound and, to Hawai’i’s credit, they scored on us pretty much every time and we just weren’t playing with enough energy,” Gross said, reflecting on the Aggies’ slow start. “Offensively, I thought we were really stagnant. We talked about getting the ball moving but they were doing a really good job with their pressure and we were being passive.”

The Aggies were then able to settle in on the defensive end at the outset of the second period, holding Hawai’i to just three points in over seven minutes of game time. Unfortunately for the Aggies, the offensive woes continued as they were only able to score six points during that same span. In the first half, UC Davis shot just 26 percent from the floor, missed on each of its five three-point attempts and committed nine turnovers compared to Hawai’i’s four.

Fueled by some timely offensive rebounding and second-chance points, Hawai’i extended its lead to 14 and entered the break on top 32-18.

For the Aggies, a 15-game win streak and a 15-1 conference record suddenly looked all for naught, as they found themselves in a daunting halftime predicament — one they had not been in for the entirety of conference play.

“The coaching staff was talking at halftime about adjustments that we could make and we could hear the players — specifically Karley Eaton — kind of take over that locker room,” Gross said. “This team was not ready to give up. The tone was really good. It was positive, but it was urgent. It was like, ‘Hey, let’s do this together. We need everybody, all in together.’”

With just one half of basketball left between them and a trip to the NCAA tournament, the Aggies brushed off the Honda Center demons that had haunted them in years past and put together a composed, methodical comeback.

A Hawai’i triple early in the third period gave the Aggies their largest deficit of the afternoon, down 37-20 with just under 19 minutes remaining in the game. But minutes later, the Aggies answered with a 7-0 run, sparked by a NBA-range three from senior guard Karley Eaton, to cut the Hawai’i lead to 10.

After a few more baskets from sophomore forward Cierra Hall, senior guard Kourtney Eaton and Bertsch, UC Davis trailed by just six points heading into the final frame. Bertsch and Hall carried the Aggie scoring, combining for 27 of the team’s 36 points through three quarters.

Hall’s ability to complement Bertsch’s scoring on the offensive end was vital for the Aggies as they worked to take back the momentum in the second half.

“It was really cool in this tournament to see her [Hall] step into more of a scoring role when people were challenging her to do that,” Gross said. “She’s a great player and an amazing competitor and she was huge for us this weekend.”

Still trailing after three quarters, UC Davis had to sustain that third-period energy throughout the last 10 minutes of play if they hoped to come out victorious.

The Aggies did more than just sustain, they locked-in on the defensive side of the ball and held the Wahine to a single made field goal in the fourth quarter. Continuing to chip away on the offensive end, UC Davis cut the Hawai’i lead to one point after Bertsch knocked down a pair of free throws. A steal by Kourtney Eaton then led to a fast break and a kick out pass from Hall to junior forward Sophia Song, who knocked down her first and only field goal of the game — a triple that put the Aggies ahead for the first time since the first quarter.

“We were getting stops and we were coming back little by little, but that three gave us the lead and it was huge,” Bertsch said. “Especially knowing she [Song] hadn’t shot the entire game but to then come up and hit that down was big time, and it gave us so much momentum going into the last few minutes.”

Two minutes later, Hall finished a tough driving layup and Song eventually buried a free throw with less than a minute remaining to cap a 16-0 Aggie run. UC Davis played out the remainder of the game trading free throws to win 58-50.

“To watch the way that this team came together, and to see how much they improved throughout the season, I just wanted this for them,” Gross said when the team returned to Davis on Sunday. “I wanted them to experience that thrill of hearing the buzzer sounding and just looking up, knowing that you had done it.”

During the on-court championship ceremonies immediately following the game, Hall and Bertsch were both named to the Big West all-tournament team. Hall recorded 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists in Saturday’s game, while Bertsch led all scorers with 24 points and eight rebounds.

As a fitting final salute to the greatest basketball player in program history, Bertsch was also named tournament MVP. But of course, the personal accolades — of which there are so many — that Bertsch has accrued over her career as an Aggie meant little to her in comparison to her team’s championship moment.

“I am just so proud of this team,” Bertsch said. “To have lost it [Big West Title game] twice and feel like you should have won it all those years was heartbreaking. We were talking about it before the game, how confident we were and how we felt this was our year. And being able to take that punch down 17 and the togetherness we felt in the locker room at halftime was the closest I felt in the five years I have been here. That was honestly an incredible moment, to be able to come out, knock down that lead and cut those nets down was amazing. It is truly an honor.”

After the confetti has settled and celebration has wound down, the fact remains that this dominant season for the Aggies is not over quite yet. UC Davis will grace the national stage this Saturday when they travel to the Bay Area to take on Stanford in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Pac-12 champion Cardinal are the number two seed in the Chicago region of the bracket, while the Aggies enter March Madness as a 15 seed.

“I’m definitely looking forward to being the underdog right now,” Bertch said when she returned to Davis on Sunday. “Because being in the conference, we’ve kind of had a target on our back for the last couple years. So if we can go into this tournament and shock some people, I think that would be awesome.”

Gross believes that her team’s wins against power-5 programs in this year’s non-conference schedule and last year’s NIT run gives the Aggies confidence going forward. Speaking of non-conference games, the Aggies were routed by Stanford, 71-43, at Maples Pavilion back on Nov. 7. Needless to say, UC Davis will be hoping to get the better of this impressive Cardinal squad the second time around when Saturday’s contest tips off at 2:30 p.m.

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org