Roughly 90 minutes after building a 12-point lead in the first quarter, the UC Davis women's basketball team walked off the court at the Honda Center in stunned silence.
Fifth-seeded Cal State Northridge controlled the final 35 minutes of Saturday's Big West Conference tournament final to emerge with a 63-55 win and with the conference's automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The Aggies (25-6) will continue their season in the Women's National Invitation Tournament, as they did last year. But that's little consolation for a team that not only won the Big West's regular-season championship but also led the conference in five offensive and two defensive categories.
"It's going to burn for a while; it's going to hurt for a while," UC Davis coach Jennifer Gross said. "I told (the players) that it's going to take a long time. Eventually, they'll be able to see the magnitude of what they achieved this year. To win 25 games in the regular season, it's unbelievable to do what they did day in and day out."
The Aggies men lost in a semifinal to Cal State Fullerton 55-52 on Friday and will likewise continue their season in the NIT.
The top-seeded Aggies women took early control by using their defense to create offense. They forced turnovers on five successive possessions and turned four of them into nine points during a 13-0 blitz to forge a 16-4 advantage with 4:47 left in the first quarter. Morgan Bertsch contributed six points and a steal.
But an aggressive team became increasingly tentative as the Matadors (19-15) made a subtle adjustment to their zone defense. "In the beginning, we were getting really wide-open shots," forward Pele Gianotti said.
"Now, they were stunting at the shooter a lot more and making us think about it. "That threw us off. I would definitely say we quit driving the gaps and hitting our shooters on the outside. I still think we were playing really well but there was definitely a change. It was just the mentality. We were hoping our defense could hold us."
The Aggies missed 24 of their next 35 shots through the third quarter after converting seven of their first eight. Meanwhile, Northridge gradually narrowed its deficit and began the second half with a 13-3 surge to move ahead, 37-32, with 5:19 left in the third quarter.
Channon Fluker, the conference's two-time MVP, led the spree with six points while Tessa Boagni added five. Dani Nafekh responded with a jumper, then Gianotti added a 3-pointer to force a 37-37 tie with 4:41 left in the period. But the Matadors outscored the Aggies 8-3 to end the quarter, then led by as many as 10 points in the final period.
Fluker proved pivotal to Northridge's recovery. The 6-foot-4 junior amassed 16 points and 12 rebounds in the second half to finish with game highs of 24 points, 17 rebounds and six assists. Boagni added 23 points and was named the tournament's MVP.
Bertsch set a school record for points in a season with 605 after scoring 22 on Saturday.
Gianotti, who joined Bertsch on the all-tournament team, contributed seven points, seven rebounds and four assists. With those seven rebounds, Gianotti became just the fourth player in UC Davis' Division I history to grab at least 600 career rebounds. The 5-11 senior finished her career with exactly 600.