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Friday, December 3, 2021

Big West Tournament Season

Both UC Davis Men’s and Women’s teams look back on their wild year, and look ahead to the ultimate goal

A rollercoaster regular season for both UC Davis men’s and women’s teams has come to an end. Despite the long layoffs on both sides, they are entering the Big West Conference Tournament with some momentum and hoping to make the most of this unpredictable season.

In a year where everything has been different, one thing stayed the same: The UC Davis Women’s Basketball Team once again captured the Big West Conference regular season title for the fifth straight time. Led by their stellar defense which allowed just 56.2 points per game in conference play, the Aggies have been able to keep their winning ways even in a difficult regular season like this one. 

“We were out of the gym [during the shutdown] at least three weeks, where we really weren’t doing anything,” said UC Davis Women’s Basketball head coach and four-time Big West Coach of the Year Jennifer Gross. “We came back around the end of December and our county thankfully allowed us to start practicing as long as we were doing antigen testing daily. At that point we just got back to practice and tried to treat the weeks like game weeks.”

After their long 59 day layoff, they picked up right where they left off, winning the first four games in their return. In a matchup against No. 12  Oregon in Eugene, the Aggies suffered their first loss of the season, losing a close one down the stretch. Still, the Aggies showed that they could play with the best. After their quick trip to Oregon, the Aggies resumed their Big West Conference play and clinched their No. 1 seed once again, winning five out of the last six and finishing with an impressive 10-2 overall record. They will face the No. 8 seed UC Riverside or No. 9 Cal State Fullerton in their first game of the Big West Tournament. In one of the toughest seasons in every player’s career, this proved to have tested them in more ways than one. 

“As a senior, you expect to be a leader on the team and be a role model to the younger players, but this year took it a whole lot further than that,” said senior guard Mackenzie Trpcic.  “As seniors this year we had to help guide our team through this pandemic, making tough decisions, keeping spirits high, all while being away from our families for long periods of time and maintaining our team bubble that we knew had to happen for our season to even be possible. The name of the game this year has been making sacrifices, and that is what we’ve done thus far and I’m very proud of this program and specifically my teammates for making my final year one I will always remember.”

 Like previous years, this Aggies squad found production in many different places. Aside from their defense oriented approach, they had five players average at least 9.8 points per game. Preseason All-Conference forward Cierra Hall led the charge averaging 14 points and just under seven rebounds a game. Redshirt junior Sage Stobbart led the team in rebounding with eight while also adding in just over 10 points as well. Trpcic handled the guard duties, averaging almost six assists per game and just under 10 points as well. With major contributions from Evanne Turner and Kayla Konrad, the Aggies had multiple players to go to at any point during the games. 

After missing a chance to go back to the National Collegiate Athletic Association

(NCAA) Tournament last year, the Aggies are hoping it can fuel them to yet another trip to the Big Dance.

“I think we’re all super motivated for a bunch of reasons,” Trpcic said. “The types of big games that we have coming up are what competitors like us dream of playing from when we’re young. So, to be in the position that we’re in and having the opportunity to compete and represent our support system at the highest level is very exciting. Missing the opportunity last year was obviously very difficult and I feel like it made us appreciate so much more what it means to compete for an NCAA tournament spot, so this year we’re going to leave it all on the court and cherish the entire experience.”

On the men’s side, with a total of only 16 games played—10 of them being in conference—the amount of time the team had to fine tune everything was very slim. With the regular season now being in the rearview mirror, looking back on the season shows how difficult it truly was. 

“I would say it was unprecedented territory,” said UC Davis Men’s head coach Jim Les. “We dealt with scenarios and situations that we never had to deal with. It was really unique and I really want to credit our players. They had to be extremely flexible and disciplined.”

When they returned to play on Jan. 22 against UC San Diego, the rust was evident from the start. Losing four of their first five games in their restart, the Aggies sat with a 3-6 overall record. Needing a crucial win, they got just that in their second game against Cal State Northridge in the beginning of February, sparking what would be a five game win streak that included sweeps of Long Beach State and Cal Poly. 

“[During the time off] we had some periods where we weren’t practicing and some periods where we were,” Les said. “From a mental standpoint, getting to gym, practicing and working on your game yet having no date in the future or no game to look forward to became a real challenge to keep everyone motivated from a day to day standpoint.”

Playing with just one senior, the Aggies’ team is built differently from other years, with a lot of younger players who have continued to develop during their time at UC Davis. Jumping from a little over eight points per game last year to 14.9 this year, sophomore Elijah Pepper has seen his usage jump this year, becoming a major contributor on both the offensive and defensive end. He also leads the team in three-point attempts and percentage at 44.6% and has the team’s season high in points with 32. Alongside fellow sophomore and Preseason All-Conference guard Ezra Manjon, the two have given the team a jolt of energy and given them the one-two punch they were missing. 

In addition to both Manjon and Pepper, they also have two other players averaging double digit points in juniors Damion Squire and Caleb Fuller, who are averaging 12.3 and 11.1 points per game respectively. A well rounded team that prides itself on the effort on the defensive end has them feeling good about their chances headed into the Big West Tournament.

“I think we have the best all-around team in the league,” Pepper said. “We have solid bigs, good guards, we play well together and we work hard. I think it’s coming together at the right time for us.”

Who awaits them in Las Vegas is Big West newcomer Cal State Bakersfield, a team they last played in 2008. With only two matchups in history between these two programs, there will be much unfamiliarity. Going into the tournament as the fourth seed, the last couple weeks gave them confidence—confidence they hope they can turn into their second ever NCAA Tournament bid.

Both squads had their share of tough moments due to COVID-19, including questions about whether they would even return. As both teams say, however, the university and its advances in testing allowed this to happen, and now with March upon us, both Aggie teams are hoping to make their mark and go back to the NCAA Tournament.
Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org

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