UC Davis women’s basketball coach Jennifer Gross landed a whale of a challenge to start what she hopes will be a Big West Conference championship season.
The Aggies will host two-time defending NCAA Division I national champion and No. 1-ranked Connecticut on Friday at the Pavilion, the regular-season opener for both teams.
The Huskies are one of the most successful programs in women’s basketball history under 30-year coach Geno Auriemma. They have won nine NCAA titles, including last year’s 40-0 run, and produced a cavalcade of Olympic and WNBA stars. Junior forward Breanna Stewart is the reigning National Player of the Year. Senior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is an AP first-team preseason All-American along with Stewart.
“It’s such an amazing opportunity,” said Gross, a former Aggies star in her fourth season as head coach. “It’s going to be an electric atmosphere. They have the Olympic coach and some of the best players in the world.”
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Last season, senior forward Sydnee Fipps scored 13 points in the Aggies’ 97-37 loss to UConn in front of a crowd of 8,000 at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever played in front of that many people,” said Fipps, a two-time All-Big West Conference first-team selection who grew up in the small town of Mariposa and rooted for UConn rival Tennessee. “I wasn’t starstruck. But to be playing against what’s always been the best team in the nation growing up was pretty crazy.”
Fipps says it’s even better to have the Huskies on the Aggies’ home court, providing an excellent opportunity to showcase women’s basketball to area fans.
“What more can you ask for for your senior year?” she said. “We’re going to have a good crowd, a good atmosphere, and obviously we’re a lot better, a lot more experienced.”
UC Davis hopes to do what UConn does every year, and that’s to reach the NCAA postseason. The Aggies did it five years ago by winning the Big West tournament title, Gross’ last as an assistant to Sandy Simpson.
“When we did that, all our players felt there wasn’t a better feeling in the world – to set your sights and to achieve it,” Gross said of a UCD team that fell 86-59 to No. 2 Stanford in the opening round. “We have our sights set pretty high this year, and obviously it would be unbelievable to win a (Big West) championship. But we’re trying not to look that far ahead. We have a lot of things we need to get better at to make that happen.”
UC Davis returns all five starters and 10 of 11 players from last year’s 15-16 team that finished fourth in the Big West and beat UC Santa Barbara 58-57 in the opening round of the conference tournament before falling 74-70 in overtime to UC Irvine in the quarterfinals.
Reporters who cover the Big West Conference have picked the Aggies to finish fourth again this season – a bit of a slight, Fipps insists, considering how many veterans return for UCD.
“It’s more fuel to the fire,” said Fipps, the team’s fiery and physical 5-foot-10 leader.
Fipps already has earned preseason All-Big West Conference first-team and All-Mid Major second-team honors after leading the Aggies in scoring the last two seasons. She was third last season in conference scoring with 17.7 points per game and is on track to become the Aggies’ career scoring leader.
And she keeps getting better.
“She’s more explosive than last year,” Gross said. “She’s really powerful out there, and if you are a defender you either have to get out of her way or you are going to foul her.”
Inside presence Alyson Doherty, UC Davis’ other preseason conference first-team selection, is still rehabbing from a knee injury suffered in last season’s Big West tournament. The 6-3 junior was second in scoring (13.1) and first in rebounding (6.3) and field-goal percentage (.557) for the Aggies in earning Big West second-team honors.
Fipps and Gross are optimistic that Doherty will return before the start of conference play because of the way she has attacked her rehab after reconstructive knee surgery.
“She’s been working so hard,” said Fipps, who suffered a similar knee injury in high school. “She sees how much basketball means and how precious your time is on the court. She is going to be awesome when she comes back.”
Senior perimeter threat Kelsey Harris (10.7 ppg, 40 percent from three-point range) and juniors Celia Marfone (7.2 ppg, 6.1 reb.) and Molly Gruebel (6.4 ppg, 3.4 assists) round out the returning starters.
Senior guard Brianna Salvatore, junior forwards Lauren Beyer (Bradshaw Christian) and Heidi Johnson and sophomore guards Taylor McGuire and Brianne Yasukochi also return.
But Gross expects her veteran players will be pressed by freshman recruits Rachel Nagel, Lauren Seyranian, Pele Gianotti, Dani Nafekh and Morgan Bertsch, the tallest Aggie at 6-4.
Gross says having so many capable players will allow her to play a style similar to her favorite NBA team, the San Antonio Spurs.
“We like everyone to touch the ball and go really hard defensively,” Gross said. “We have players competing for minutes, really battling and getting after it.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.