College Sports

The suspense was an ESPN airball, but UC Davis thrilled to go NCAA Tournament dancing

The suspense was an air ball, a gaffe delivered too early on ESPN.

But no one was in the mood to sulk at Woodstock’s Pizza in downtown Davis on Monday afternoon. The pizza was served in abundance, the soda and iced tea and stories, too.

The UC Davis women’s basketball team, boosters, fans and coaches from other UCD sports packed into the eatery to celebrate a season that includes the Big West Conference tournament championship and has plenty of legs left to it, if a spirited 16-game winning streak is any indicator.

Some two hours after ESPN aired the NCAA women’s bracket while Dick Vitale was breaking down the men’s bracket, the Aggies proved to be good sports and a joyous cheering section. Players and coaches collectively let out a yelp of good cheer for a live shot for the ESPN program that lost all of its suspense, even though they knew Saturday’s opponent.

It will be No. 2-seeded Stanford, a familiar program to this sport and also to the 15-seeded Aggies. Tipoff is 2:30 p.m. at Maples Pavilion, televised on ESPN2.

The teams regularly play in the regular season, including last Nov. 7 when the Cardinal rolled 71-43. UCD (25-6) once led this series 9-0 but sixth-ranked Stanford (28-4) now leads 13-10.

Stanford is in the NCAA Tournament for the 32nd consecutive season. Only Tennessee has a longer streak, qualifying this year for its 38th bid.

The coaches know each other, the players are familiar with each other. The only bummer was the anticipation that grips fans across the land for the men’s selection show was a wash for the women. Rotten timing, rotten luck, but there’s no time to complain.

In between cramming and taking finals, the Aggies have a game to play, and they’re collectively thinking one thing: upset.

“It is disappointing that it was released early,” UCD coach Jennifer Gross said. “It’s so hard to get here, to make the tournament, and part of the experience is the surprise in knowing who you get to play. That’s a fun part of it. But we’re so excited. You work so hard as a group to do this, and to be able to be in the NCAA’s amazing.

“I’m so happy for the kids. This is the most improved team I’ve ever coached.”

Gross is pleased because this is why coaches coach, to nurture team growth, to bask in a championship glow. Players at the pizza joint wore Big West Conference championship hats, some of them with pieces of the net from the title game hanging in the back.

“We’re not at the edge of our seats here wondering but we’re here to celebrate,” Gross told the crowd. “Whether it’s by bus or plane, we knew we’d charter together, so let’s go crazy!”

Gross is an Aggie to the core. She played for Sandy Simpson at UCD, recruited out of San Diego and graduating in 1997 with a degree in organizational studies. She is in the Cal Aggie Athletics Hall of Fame after setting UCD career marks in assists (448), steals (300) and three pointers (163). The steals and three-pointer marks still stand.

The Aggies went 29-3 during Gross’ senior season, which included the program’s first showing in the Division II final eight. Then Gross became an Aggies assistant to Simpson, helping usher in the Division I era, and then she became head coach, hand-picked by Simpson.

In her seventh season at the helm, Gross has been named Big West Coach of the Year the last three seasons. Her contract has her locked into Yolo County through the 2023-24 season.

“We’re so happy for her because she puts as much into this as we do, probably more,” UCD forward Cierra Hall said.

The last time UCD made the NCAA Tournament was in 2011 and the date was against Stanford. It was a loss, marking the final game for Simpson. He was moved by the Aggies crowd chanting his name that day.

Simpson texts Gross regularly, still a fan, forever a fan. When the Aggies talk family, they mean it. College mid-majors like this bring it all home. Gross and Aggies associate head coach Joe Teramoto have been married since 2010, while assistants under Simpson.

Their young children – Joshua and Amelia – were part of the festive fun at the pizza place Monday.

“Sandy is so special to me and to our staff,” Gross said. “Other than my parents, he was such a incredible impact in my life. He recruited me to play for UCD, recruited me to coach with him. Means a lot.”

This team means a lot to Gross. The Aggies started the season 1-3, and then were out of sorts in a 65-60 loss to Hawaii on Jan. 12.

UCD regrouped, came together and rolled, taking Hawaii down in the Big West Conference Tournament title game 58-50, rallying from 17 down.

UCD is bolstered by three seniors in Big West Player of the Year Morgan Bertsch, a forward who is the all-time leading scorer in Aggies women or men’s history, and twin guards Karley and Kourtney Eaton. The trio have helped UCD go 97-34 over four seasons together, the most wins in the program’s Division I history.

Bertsch averages 23.5 points and is fourth nationally in points (729) and average this season.

“She’s so good,” Hall said of Bertsch. “We’ve grown as a team. We’re excited. We know Stanford well and they know us. The coaches know each other.”

Bertsch said, “we don’t want the season to end.”

And Gross, “Our three seniors are the most selfless players. They want to win, and they want to win the right way – sharing the ball. Everyone on this team grasped their role and owned it, and here we are.”