A lot of networking and a little wine helped UC Davis coach Jennifer Gross reel in the biggest name in women's college basketball.
The Aggies will play at Connecticut on Dec. 5, then host the Huskies at the Pavilion to open the 2014-15 season.
"It's going to be a great experience for our players," said Gross, the former UC Davis star in her third season as coach. "Not only will we get to go to their place and play in that packed environment, they'll be coming here."
Landing top-ranked UConn came about because of Gross' long hours on the road recruiting in her 10 seasons with the Aggies as an assistant and head coach.
Through the years, she has gotten to know Huskies associate coach Chris Dailey, who introduced her to head coach Geno Auriemma.
"They come out to play Stanford every other year, so we asked if they would consider playing us next season on the trip," Gross said. "After getting to know each other a little bit, they said that would be great. Geno also is a big wine connoisseur, so I think that being so close to Napa sealed the deal."
Gross always is looking for opportunities to expose area fans to the best in women's basketball.
Last November, the Aggies hosted then-No. 1 Stanford at the Pavilion, a game that drew a season-best announced crowd of 2,612. This season, the Aggies will play at Stanford on Nov. 17.
Gross credits coaches such as Auriemma and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer for thinking big picture regarding women's basketball.
"A lot of schools will give you money to play at their place, but they won't come to Davis," Gross said. "Now we've got the chance of getting 3,000 to 4,000 people in the stands, and it's so much fun for our players and for our community."
Connecticut played at Pacific on Dec. 28, 2010, and drew an announced sellout crowd of 6,150 to Spanos Center.
Returning All-Big West Conference first-team player Sydnee Fipps, who led the Aggies in scoring and rebounding last season, is excited about getting the opportunity to play against another national power – even if she's no fan of the Huskies.
"Growing up, I really liked Tennessee and couldn't stand UConn," said Fipps, a Mariposa product who averaged 17.1 points and 5.1 rebounds last season. "But I've always respected them, and they play the best basketball out there, so to get a chance to compete with the best and show them what we've got has us excited."
Fipps and Gross also are excited about the Aggies' prospects for the upcoming season.
The Aggies were 12-18 last season (7-11 in the Big West Conference) while relying heavily on then-freshmen Celia Marfone, Heidi Johnson (6-foot-2), Molly Greubel and Alyson Doherty (6-3). Marfone and Doherty were starters. The foursome combined to average 18.7 points.
"We're a lot older, more experienced," Fipps said. "Everybody came back and worked hard. There's been a lot of improvement from everyone over the summer."
Gross didn't plan to have so many underclass players contribute so early, but now the Aggies should be rewarded.
"We had our bumps last year, but the experience they got last year was invaluable," Gross said. "Where we are now from where we were last year, we weren't even in the same ballpark."
Fipps, an All-Big West preseason selection, again will be the Aggies' go-to player and one of four upperclass players on the roster. The 5-10 forward excelled last season in Gross' offense and continues to be dedicated to improving.
"She has a knack for putting the ball in the basket," Gross said. "But it doesn't come easy. She's a worker. This year, we've challenged her to be one of the best defenders on the floor."
Others joining Fipps and the sophomores in contributing roles are senior forward Idit Oryon, senior forward Brianna Salvatore, junior Iowa State transfer Kelsey Harris, sophomore forward Lauren Beyer (Bradshaw Christian High School) and freshman guards Taylor McGuire and Brianne Yasukochi.
The Aggies will host USC of the Pacific-12 Conference in the season opener Friday. UC Davis beat the Trojans 78-69 in Los Angeles last season, though they are now coached by former Olympian and WNBA standout Cynthia Cooper.
"It's another opportunity to bring a really quality team into the Pavilion," Gross said. WOMEN
Coach: Jennifer Gross (29-31, third season)
2012-13: 12-18 overall; 7-11 (seventh) in Big West Conference
Key loss: C Courtney French (10.3 points, 3.6 rebounds)
Key returnees: F Sydnee Fipps, F Celia Marfone, F Alyson Doherty, G Molly Greubel
Strengths: Fipps is a prolific scorer (17.1 points last season) and one of the best in the Big West; Marfone, Doherty, Greubel and Heidi Johnson are tested sophomores; and the Aggies can shoot (third in the conference in scoring at 60.7 points per game, free-throw percentage at 74.3 and 3-point percentage at 31.0).
Areas to improve: The Aggies need better defense and rebounding. They ranked last in rebounding margin (-8.4) and second to last in points allowed (63.8) in the Big West last season.
No. Name P Yr. Ht.
1 Heidi Johnson F So. 6-2
3 Brianne Yasukochi G Fr. 5-5
4 Idit Oryon F Sr. 6-0
11 Lauren Beyer F So. 6-1
14 Sydnee Fipps F Jr. 5-10
20 Celia Marfone F So. 6-0
21 Taylor McGuire G Fr. 5-10
23 Molly Gruebel G So. 5-9
24 Brianna Salvatore F Sr. 5-10
33 Kelsey Harris G Jr. 5-10
44 Alyson Doherty F So. 6-3
Date Opponent Time
Friday vs. USC 7 p.m.
Nov. 11 at Pacific 7 p.m.
Nov. 17 at Stanford 2 p.m.
Nov. 26 vs. San Jose State 4:45 p.m.
Cal Poly Tournament
Nov. 29 vs. USF 5 p.m.
Nov. 30 vs. Akron 5 p.m.
Dec. 5 at Connecticut 4 p.m.
Dec. 7 at Hofstra 10 a.m.
Dec. 15 at Saint Mary's 1 p.m.
Dec. 18 at Santa Clara 5:30 p.m.
Dec. 21 vs. Houston Baptist Noon
Dec. 28 vs. Sacramento State 2 p.m.
Jan. 2 vs. Simpson 4:45 p.m.
Jan. 9 vs. Cal State Northridge* 7 p.m.
Jan. 11 vs. Long Beach State* 2 p.m.
Jan. 16 at UC Riverside* 7 p.m.
Jan. 18 at Cal State Fullerton* 6 p.m.
Jan. 23 at Hawaii* 9 p.m.
Jan. 30 vs. Cal Poly* 7 p.m.
Feb. 1 vs. UC Santa Barbara* 2 p.m.
Feb. 6 at Cal State Northridge* 7 p.m.
Feb. 8 at UC Irvine* 2 p.m.
Feb. 13 vs. Cal State Fullerton* 7 p.m.
Feb. 20 at Long Beach State* 7 p.m.
Feb. 22 vs. Hawaii 2 p.m.
Feb. 27 at Cal Poly* 7 p.m.
March 1 at UC Santa Barbara* 2 p.m.
March 6 vs. UC Riverside* 7 p.m.
March 8 vs. UC Irvine* 2 p.m.
Mar. 11-15 Big West Tournament TBA
*Big West Conference games
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.