Aggies fall to Long Beach State Down the Stretch; Cierra Hall, Sage Stobbart and Kayla Konrad close their careers at home with a bang securing the win to close the season
By MARLON ROLON — email@example.com
Following a four-game road trip, the Aggies returned back to the University Credit Union Center for the first time since Feb. 12. Sitting at sixth place in the Big West Conference — an unfamiliar spot in the standings — UC Davis lost to Long Beach State, who sat in third, 65-60.
Since 2016, the Aggies have finished the season as the No. 1 seed in the Big West conference; however, that streak will come to an end as they head into the postseason as the underdogs.
“Yeah, it’s different; obviously for the last five years, we’ve been the No. 1 seed,” UC Davis Head Coach Jennifer Gross said. “Whatever comes our way, we’re going to just approach it with the best attitude and the most preparation that we can.”
Winners of five straight regular-season conference championships prior to this season, the Aggies will embrace the underdog role heading into the tournament. The season has had its ups and downs. Their highest moments came when they traveled to Oregon and broke the Ducks 44-home non conference game win streak on Dec. 1. Then on Dec. 19, they defeated Gonzaga for the first time within the program’s history.
“Sometimes from the one spot there’s a lot of pressure on you, all the expectations are ‘you’re going to come out and steam roll everybody;’ this is the first time where we’ll kinda be in that underdog role and we gotta find a way to grab on to that role and try to be the team that upsets some teams,” Gross said. “We’re capable of that, when we’re playing well we can beat anybody in this conference.”
Their lows came on Feb. 1, against UC Riverside, a team they hadn’t lost to at home since 2016. Then on Feb. 26, they suffered their first loss to UC Santa Barbara since 2017. The trials and tribulations of the journey can make or break teams; however, the defending champions have proven they can beat anybody when they’re playing their best basketball.
The experience UC Davis has is what makes this team dangerous despite their 14-12 (8-8 in conference) record. They are led by the second leading scorer in the conference, senior Cierra Hall who is averaging 15.2 ppg and senior Sage Stobbart, the reigning Big West Defensive Player of the Year, is leading the league with 2.1 blocks per game. Lastly, at the forward position, senior Kayla Konrad is averaging 8.2 ppg — her veteran presence on the defensive end makes her part of the big three. The trio came into the Big West together in 2017 historically leading the Aggies to two NCAA tournament berths; they are considered the center pieces to their championship run.
UC Davis faced off against the No. 1 ranked defense in the conference in Long Beach State. The Aggies started the game on a 7-0 run and eventually led by a margin of 11. It was all Evanne Turner in the first quarter, scoring eight points while going 2/3 from downtown. Hall and Konrad pitched in five points each to put the Aggies up 20-12.
During the first quarter, the Beach struggled to put up points inside the paint, scoring two of their 12 points on the inside, however their defense forced five turnovers leading to five points. Long Beach played with pressure defensively as they had all season, leading the conference with the most steals and came up with three to stay afloat during the opening quarter.
“They played a lot of different defenses and they’re constantly switching between zone and man and pressure and trapping, so they’re trying to create a frenzied atmosphere so our game plan was just to break the pressure, stay composed and keep it simple against their zones,” Gross said.
Turner opened the second quarter with a three pointer to take a commanding 11-point lead. The Beach kept missing shots but their active hands on the defensive end kept forcing the Aggies to make bad decisions leading to eight turnovers throughout the quarter. The defense was beginning to take a toll on the Aggie offense.
Still in the second quarter, the bench for Long Beach was key in their comeback, scoring 14 points. They took their first lead of the game, 34-32 with 59 seconds remaining. The visiting team eventually was awarded free throws off a foul that saw them go up by four points.
On the other hand, the Aggie defense could not create any opportunities coming up with only one steal. Stobbart and Hall had a rare, quiet quarter, combining for zero points. Their bench did not contribute much with only three points. UC Davis’ offense was outscored 12-24 to close the quarter.
“There were just too many times where we fell into their pace, and we just couldn’t seamlessly get into our offensive actions,” Gross said.
The Aggies looked alive in the third going on an 8-0 run, six-points came off three’s by first-year Sydney Burns and a jumper from Hall put the Aggies up by four, 40-36. However, Long Beach senior Justina King scored four points off a turnover and a foul to tie the game at 40. The Aggies were having trouble containing King inside the paint, sending her to the free throw line once again for free points. The Beach scored eight points off turnovers in the quarter.
Since the 7:38 mark of the third quarter, no other Aggie scored besides Konrad, who put up six straight until the last 59 seconds. At that point in the game, Stobbart went to the line for two, making one to put UC Davis ahead 47-46. In the next possession, second-year Kianna Hamilton-Fisher hit a quick three over Konrad, silencing the home crowd in the process. With 30 seconds left in the third period, the home team held on to the ball and let the clock wind down to the final seconds when Hall drew the defense and kicked the ball out to Burns who shot a one handed floater over two defenders at the buzzer to end the third in a tie at 49 a piece.
Both teams played great defense in the fourth quarter, and the Aggies led 57-51 in the last five minutes. Just as the home team began to get comfortable, the Long Beach defense would not go away, utilizing full court pressure forcing eight turnovers throughout the quarter. UC Davis held onto the lead until the last 38 seconds. Then, Hamilton-Fisher drained a three to go up by two. Eventually, Long Beach pulled away, stealing a win on the road, 65-60.
UC Davis’ turnovers and missed free throws hurt them throughout the game. They shot 7-13 (54%) from the free throw line, turned the ball over 26 times and their bench was outscored 27-7. Three Aggies finished in double figures as Konrad led the way with 15 points and eight rebounds, followed by Burns’ 12 points and six assists and Evanne Turner’s 11 points. Both teams split the season series 1-1. The Aggies pulled out a win in Long Beach on Jan. 29, winning by 10 points.
“It came down to obviously too many turnovers. If they’re going to score it has to be in the half court. They do such a good job at scoring off the turnovers,” Gross said after the game. “The first game we went down to their place we did a much better job of that and obviously the score was in our favor because of it.”
Gross was asked if the defensive pressure and quick swipes were an issue throughout the contest, “I think that was one of the problems we didn’t adjust that well,” she said. “There were stretches where we did and were very aggressive against it. Against that kind of pressure you have to be willing to attack, you have to be willing to take a few risks.”
After a two-day break on March 5, UC Davis honored Hall, Stobbart and Konrad before tip-off as they played their last home game as an Aggie. The party didn’t end there, as the Aggies punctuated their season by defeating Cal State Fullerton by 28 points, thus securing Gross’ 200th win of her career. She is the fifth head coach in conference history to achieve such a feat.
“I’ve been very fortunate to coach some amazing teams here and some fantastic student athletes. Our staff is the longest tenured staff in the country. We’ve been together longer than any other staff in division one so it’s a testament to my entire staff and the players that we’ve coached,” Gross said. “Those milestones are special because you get to look back and say ‘wow, I’ve gotten to coach some amazing people and some amazing teams’. For me that’s kind of what it is: recognition. I’ve had a pretty awesome job here at UC Davis coaching some amazing people and getting to work with really great staff.”
Hall finished with 19 points, eight rebounds, Stobbart added 13 points with nine rebounds and Konrad contributed with 11 points along with three steals in their last dance at the University Credit Union Center.
“They’ve helped elevate the program in so many ways,” Gross said about the three graduating seniors. “They came in as freshmen, and they bought into this concept of wanting to be part of something special, and every year, they’ve done something that the team before hadn’t done. They were part of teams that won Big West championships, they were part of teams that helped us get to our first NCAA tournament,”
“This year they were part of a team that went and beat top 25 Oregon on the road and beat Gonzaga, a mid-major power so it’s been really cool to see them just every year do something special and raise the bar for our program,” Gross said. “You can’t replace kids like that who have done so much for the program. All we can do at this point is try and give them back everything that we can and help them leave a legacy for the future Aggies.”
Since the Aggies secured the sixth seed in the Big West Conference, they’ve earned a first round bye in the Big West Conference Tournament. In the quarterfinals, they will face off against a recent familiar foe, third seed Long Beach State at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson Nevada. It’s win, or go home.
Written by: Marlon Rolon — firstname.lastname@example.org