Photo Credits: JUSTIN HAN / AGGIE. UC Davis forward Nina Bessolo (5) goes up for a layup during an exhibition game against CSU East Bast at the Pavilion on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Coming off historic campaign, Aggies seek to establish new identity
The 2019-20 season marks the beginning of a new era for the UC Davis women’s basketball team. Not many programs have an all-time leading scorer and an all-time assists leader playing on the same floor together, let alone for four straight seasons. But such was the case for the Aggies, who were spoiled by the talents of Morgan Bertsch and Kourtney Eaton. The duo, along with three-point sharpshooter Karley Eaton, led the Aggies on a historic postseason run at the end of their senior year, culminating in a Big West championship and an appearance in the NCAA tournament. It was an ideal send-off for three of the program’s most exciting players.
Now for the first time since the 2014-15 season, UC Davis features a playing roster that does not have a player with the last name Bertsch or Eaton. It is a significant change, but if anyone is up to the challenge of putting together a competitive squad year in and year out, it is head coach Jennifer Gross.
Now in her tenth season at the position, Gross oversees a program yearning to continue its dominance from last year, in which the Aggies finished 25-7 overall, including a school-record 15-1 in the Big West conference. The three-time Big West Coach of the Year has assembled one of the premier coaching staffs in all of college basketball, composed of associate head coaches Joe Teramoto and Des Abeyta and assistant coach Matt Klemin. The group is one of the longest-tenured in the country and one that has worked with a plethora of high-level athletes over the past several seasons at UC Davis.
And while this year’s roster is different from those in years past, that does not mean it is less capable of playing quality basketball. It features a number of returners, promising transfers and freshman who can ball.
Leading the group of experienced returning players are the team’s three seniors: forwards Nina Bessolo and Sophia Song and guard Katie Toole. Bessolo was one of six players selected to the preseason All-Big West Team coaches’ poll after earning an all Big-West honorable mention award last season. Last year, Bessolo shot over 40% from the floor and 35% from three, finishing with a career high nine points per game average, along with 3.9 rebounds per game.
Song was another pivotal piece in the Aggies’ championship run. She started 17 games and racked up over 650 minutes of playing time last season in a do-it-all role. Song averaged 5.7 points and shot 37% from beyond the arc.
Song and Bessolo together have collectively won 78 games in their last three years, while also garnishing a Big West Tournament crown, two trips to the WNIT and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2019. But if her performance so far in this young season is any indicator of what is to come, Toole is undeniably poised for a breakout year. The redshirt-senior has scored in double figures in each of the team’s first three games, including a career-high 21-point effort against Santa Clara on Nov. 16. The transfer from Utah State only played about eight minutes a game last year, but her height and athleticism make her a versatile scoring threat that Gross and the new-look Aggies will lean on going forward.
Despite Toole’s surge to the forefront of the Aggie attack, UC Davis has struggled to keep pace with its opponents in its first three games, losing on the road to Montana State and Fresno State, and then at home to the Broncos in heartbreaking fashion on Saturday. But the team is still a work in progress, according to Gross, and will hope to use its early struggles as a learning experience before the season really heats up.
“I think we’re still developing our offensive identity a little bit — getting our offensive flow going,” Gross said following Saturday’s loss to Santa Clara. “We have two point guards that are still new to the program a little bit. We have a lot of weapons on the floor, we just need to put it all together. So that’s on me, I need to do a better job of getting us there faster. Our focus is always on our defensive urgency and playing five together all the time, and I thought we’ve taken big steps forward on every game that we’ve played. It just wasn’t quite enough today.”
Those new point guards, redshirt-junior Mackenzie Trpcic and freshman Campbell Gray, have split fairly productive minutes thus far and will only continue to ease into their roles as distributors as the season wears on. Trpcic led the Aggies with a season-high six assists against Santa Clara, while Gray added in two assists and six points of her own. They are joined by another freshman guard, Evanne Turner, who has already seen substantial playing time off the bench so far.
A critical asset in helping the new guards get comfortable this season will be another key returner in junior forward Cierra Hall, who was one of two players last season to appear in all 32 games — averaging over 24 minutes of playing time in each. Hall, who averaged 6.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last season, is a glue-type player that Gross can rely on to provide additional stability to the team’s group of newcomers. An experienced core is part of the reason why Gross is already encouraged by what she’s seen out of the freshman guards, in particular.
“[They’ve been] hitting big shots, making big plays [and] getting stops for us,” Gross said. “By December-January, those kids aren’t going to be freshman anymore. And we have a lot of people playing different roles for us this year, so we’re still trying to build that chemistry. I’m very confident that we’re going to get there, it’s just a matter of time.”
The Aggies will begin a stretch of four home games starting on Nov. 22, so they will have ample opportunity to showcase their growing chemistry in front of a friendly crowd. Once December hits, the team will then hit the road for four straight contests — a stretch that includes challenging games at Minnesota and Stanford. These matchups and others will be pivotal for the Aggies to learn from and improve off of before their Big West slate begins on Jan. 9 at UC Riverside.
Compared to their last several seasons, this is undoubtedly going to be a much different one for the Aggies. Bertsch and the Eaton twins were the engine that kept the Aggie offense humming in recent years, but now Gross’ squad will have to adjust to life without them. But that’s what makes the Aggies’ future so intriguing: the possibility of new players to make their own mark. It will happen one way or another, according to Toole.
“People always seem to step up — it’s just a natural thing,” Toole said. “Whoever’s doing it that night, that’s who we’re going to go to.”
Feed the hot hand and play sound, team basketball will be the Aggies’ mindset this season as they attempt to defend their Big West title.
Written by: Dominic Faria and AJ Seymour — firstname.lastname@example.org