UC Davis women’s basketball coach Jennifer Gross likes the format for the Big West Conference women’s tournament.
Unlike the men, where all eight qualifying teams open in the quarterfinals on Thursday in Anaheim, the women’s tournament takes a little longer to unravel, though it offers more rewards for the top regular-season finishers.
First place UC Riverside and second place Hawaii earned byes into Friday’s semifinals at the Honda Center.
Third-seed Long Beach State and No. 4 UCD received byes into Wednesday night’s quarterfinals at UC Irvine. But their respective opponents, No. 6 Cal Poly and No. 5 UC Santa Barbara, had to play Tuesday night.
“I’m in favor of protecting our top seeds,” Gross said. “The coaches agree that there should be a reward for doing well in the conference season.”
While Gross is thrilled to have a bye, she knows it doesn’t guarantee a thing. Last season the Aggies had to play in the opening round as a fifth seed. UC Davis beat UC Irvine, then upset fourth-seeded Long Beach State to reach the semifinals.
“We’re very aware getting a (win) on that first night can give you some momentum,” Gross said.
But most of the UCD players know the tournament challenges. Senior leaders Alyson Doherty and Celia Marfone are making their fourth Big West tournament appearances. Sophomore standouts Pele Gianotti, Rachel Nagel and Dani Nafekh got their indoctrinations last year. It will, however, be a new experience for freshmen forward Morgan Bertsch and guard twins Karley and Kourtney Eaton.
The Aggies come into the tournament with more to build on. Their 17 overall wins is the most since going 17-13 in 2011-2012 and their 10 Big West Conference wins is their highest since going 10-6 in 2010-2011.
With the 6-foot-4 Bertsch, 6-3 Doherty and 6-foot Marfone leading the way, the Aggies set a school record with 119 blocks the season and they are the Big West leaders in that category.
With 145 blocked shots, Doherty is five from tying the school record. She’s also the team’s second leading scorer (12.3 points per game) and top rebounder (6.2) this season and was named All-Big West Conference first team on Monday. Bertsch, the team’s scoring leader (13.3), made the second team and landed a spot on the conference’s all-freshmen team. Gianotti and Marfone made honorable mention.
The Aggies won the tournament and the automatic NCAA D-I berth in 2010-11 and have been to the finals three times since becoming full-fledged members of the conference in 2007-08.
But it’s UC Riverside (23-7, 16-0) that is the heavy favorite to win the tournament.
“I think the most important thing is that we go into this week feeling confident, feeling refreshed, feeling good,” Gross said. “If you are doing that and catch a little luck along the way, anything can happen.”
Big West Conference tournaments
- ▪ Wednesday: UC Davis women vs. second-lowest remaining seed, 8:30 p.m.
- ▪ Thurday: UC Davis men vs. UC Santa Barbara, noon