UC Davis, the Gulliver of women’s basketball in the Big West Conference this season, found its attempt to reach the NCAA Tournament frustrated by an attack of Lilliputians.
UC Santa Barbara relied on two 5-foot-5 guards to topple the top-seeded Aggies 73-59 in the semifinals of the Big West Conference tournament Friday at the Honda Center.
Despite the loss, UC Davis (23-7) will play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament as a reward for winning the Big West’s regular-season championship.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” Aggies coach Jennifer Gross said. “But as I told (the players), we can still appreciate everything our team has been able to accomplish this season. Hopefully, we still have a lot of basketball to play. Our season’s not over.”
The Gauchos’ Drea Toler and Onome Jemerigbe, both 5-5, played pivotal roles. Toler came off the bench to score a career-high 23 points, many of them coming from drives in the lane that ended in layups. Toler added seven assists and two steals.
Jemerigbe, a senior from Stockton, added a career-best 21 points, matched her personal high with four steals and had five rebounds and five assists.
“They’re so quick,” Gross said. “We struggled to get them in front of us, and they were able to attack the basket.”
The fourth-seeded Gauchos (16-15) sabotaged the Aggies’ defensive concentration on UCSB’s perimeter scorers and 6-4 Drew Edelman, who made 61.5 percent of her field-goal attempts to lead the Big West.
“We were very focused on their shooters and on trying to limit Edelman’s touches,” Gross said. “But by sagging off of (Jemerigbe and Toler), they were just getting too much of a head of steam and attacking the basket.”
Defensively, the two small guards also helped stifle 6-4 Morgan Bertsch, the Aggies’ leading scorer and a member of the all-conference first team. Bertsch finished with 12 points but fouled out with 3:34 to play.
“Bertsch is going to feel like five people are guarding her just by crowding her,” UCSB coach Bonnie Henrickson said, “and that’s out of massive respect for how good that kid is.”
UCD began the game by forcing three turnovers in the first 1:56, converting two of them into points in building a 7-0 lead. UCSB responded with an 11-2 blitz to take the lead. Both teams tied the score five times and exchanged the lead five times when Rachel Nagel’s halfcourt shot at the buzzer gave the Aggies a 30-29 halftime lead.
“With Rachel’s big shot giving us a little momentum going into the second half, I felt pretty good that we could take care of the ball and execute a little better,” Gross said. “We’ve been able to rely on our defense and our rebounding throughout the year.”
But the Gauchos took control in the third quarter. UCSB made all 10 of its shots in the period, including two from 3-point range, while UCD scored just four points on free throws in a span of 6 minutes, 24 seconds. As a result, the Gauchos led 52-45 after three quarters.
“We’d play 27 seconds of really good defense,” Gross said, “and they seemed to knock every single shot down.”
Nagel finished with a team-high 18 points, Bertsch had five assists, and Pele Gianotti added 12 points and seven rebounds. But UCSB outscored the taller Aggies 40-26 in the lane, 20-9 off turnovers, 8-0 on fast breaks and 23-2 from the bench.
Yet playing in the WNIT will give UCD another chance to make history.
“Our program in the Division I era hasn’t had a postseason win yet,” Gross said. “This group has really made a mark on our record books, and I feel like we can do that again and really make a splash in the WNIT. It’s exciting for all of us to know that we still have basketball to be played.”