Page 2 From The Tournament: Women's Preview
There was a changing of the guard of sorts in the Big West Conference this season. An old favorite emerged, two previous champions reloaded, while a few of the old standbys remained consistent while trying to take the next step: A Big West Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament win.
The tournament begins Tuesday at the Bren Events Center on the campus of UC Irvine and concludes Saturday at Honda Center.
Here’s a look at this year’s field.
No. 1 seed UC Riverside (23-7, 16-0)
The Highlanders return as the top seed for the first time since 2006-07 thanks in part to the play of two-time Big West Player of the Year Brittany Crain. The conference’s leading scorer and fourth player to score more than 2,200 points, Crain took control when the Highlanders were thinned by injuries. With the ability to lead on the court and the box score, UC Riverside never missed a beat when the Highlanders lost their bench.
Head coach John Margaritis says she’s responsible for his Big West Coach of the Year award.
“She just carried us,” Margaritis said. “Trying to play without the luxury of subbing someone in, the catalyst of that was Brittany. She comes to play, day in and day out. Even when things don’t go her way, she can still be a huge influence in every game.”
However, the Highlanders are still thin off the bench with injuries still lingering, forcing them to play smart, precise basketball. Margaritis says the game plan is to take it one possession at a time.
“We’re not going to play to not lose or to win or to compete in the Big West Tournament,” Margaritis said. “Because if you put more emphasis on it than there’s supposed to be, it’s going to hinder you and it’s going to paralyze you… We know that we had a really good year and one game will not define it.”
All-time, UC Riverside has won the Big West Tournament on three occasions and has made two trips to the WNIT. With the double bye, they’ll play Friday at Honda Center in the semifinals against the lowest remaining seed.
No. 2 seed Hawai'i (19-10, 12-4)
The Rainbow Wahine have been knocking at the door since they rejoined the Big West, improving from the quarterfinals, to the semis and then the finals in last year’s tournament. They’re arguably one of the deepest teams in the field and head coach Laura Beeman can effectively manage a bench.
For the fourth year in a row, the conference’s Sixth Player of the Year has come out of the island as Megan Huff won it this year. A 6-foot-3 center and former offensive hitter on the nationally ranked UH women’s volleyball team, Huff has given the ‘Bows an inside presence and an athletic defender off the bench.
Combo guard Destiny King leads Hawai'i in scoring and Beeman said the senior out of Long Beach Poly has grown into a leader.
“The maturation that this lady has had since she walked in as a freshman until now is tremendous,” Beeman said. “This year, at times, it was a struggle for her to step up. But the last half of conference play she’s been that floor general for us and she has a great supporting cast.”
In addition, senior guard Ashleigh Karatiana was named second-team all-Big West. The Rainbow Wahine will open up Friday in the semifinals at Honda Center against the highest remaining seed.
No. 3 seed Long Beach State (23-7, 12-4)
The Beach had one of the best seasons in recent program history, but head coach Jody Wynn still isn’t content.
“We haven’t won a championship,” Wynn said. “We’re still the odd duck. We certainly feel the support and the atmosphere here is positive and encouraging with coaches and among the student body.”
Long Beach State boasts a team full of overall athletes. They might not be the tallest group, but Wynn’s system of positon-less basketball has created an exceptionally versatile, balanced group. Their 10.3 steals per game is indicative of the 49ers’ scrappy nature.
“Everyone tells us how we have no height, we’re undersized and have no post presence,” Wynn said. “We hear it every day almost. But it doesn’t really matter with our team. They get after it, it’s a very unselfish group and that’s a testament to their character.”
Junior guard Raven Benton missed last year’s Big West tournament but she might be better for it. She recovered from a knee injury to lead The Beach in conference scoring despite a new pass-first mentality.
“For somebody who was forced to sit on the sideline and watch the game, study the game and understand the game, she certainly has come back with a lot more intellect and court vision,” Wynn said. “It’s been great to see her not only score the ball, but be one of our leaders in assists and has become a really good decision maker as well.”
Forward Jewelyn Sawyer was named Defensive Player of the Year and point guard Anna Kim was an honorable mention on the All-Conference team. The Beach begins play in the quarterfinals against the lowest remaining seed Wednesday, at the Bren Events Center.
No. 4 seed UC Davis (17-12, 10-6)
The Aggies are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the conference, second only the UC Riverside in field goal percentage (43.8 percent) and three-point field goal percentage (34.0 percent). That second number is bolstered by the play of All-Conference senior forward Celia Marfone’s 40 percent mark from the arc.
“With Celia, she’s such a glue player for us and we really don’t win a game without her,” head coach Jennifer Gross said. “She’s just such a tremendous player in so many areas that don’t always show up on the stat sheet. She has a real scoring mentality. She gives us a boost, she can shoot threes, she can get to the rim.”
UC Davis runs a balanced Princeton Offense with a variety of weapons. Forwards Alyson Doherty and Pele Gianotti also garnered all-conference honors and freshman Morgan Bertsch, the Aggies’ leading scorer with 13.3 points per game, named Freshman of the Year.
“We’re excited we get three more years of her,” Gross said.
A tough non-conference schedule has the Aggies primed for tournament action.
“We tried to put ourselves in situations that could be similar to this tournament,” Gross said. “We’re always trying to play really good quality opponents and give our student-athletes an opportunity to go up against the best.”
UC Davis will start Wednesday in the quarterfinal round at the Bren Events Center, taking on the highest remaining seed from Tuesday.
No. 5 seed UC Santa Barbara (11-19, 8-8)
Under the direction of former Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson, the Gauchos made big strides. They won nine more games than the previous season and had the third-best mark from the field (40.9 percent).
“There’s been progress and a shift in the culture and expectation,” Henrickson said. “I think this group is sold on the consistency that there needs to be to win every night in this league. But there’s progress there, certainly. We’re just trying to get a little bit better every day.”
Where the Gauchos have struggled is on the defensive end of the floor. UCSB is allowing the second-most points in the conference and Henrickson says part of that can be attributed to turnovers. This week in Irvine, Henrickson is looking for her team to eliminate those mistakes and take care of the basketball.
“At times we’ve turned the ball over and we’re not successful when we do that and we definitely need to clean that up,” Henrickson said. “There’s an expectation of the effort that it takes to play on the defensive end and be more receptive because we’re not a big team, we’re one of the smallest teams in the league.”
Junior point guard Onome Jemerigbe has two strong weapons to distribute to in All-Big West guards sophomore Makala Roper and senior Jasmine Ware, the Gauchos’ two leading scorers.
UCSB will face host UC Irvine in the first contest of the tournament, Tuesday at 6 p.m.
No. 6 seed Cal Poly (14-15, 7-9)
Once a perennial favorite in Anaheim, last year the Mustangs failed to win a game at the tournament for the first time since 2010. A six seed is an unfamiliar place for a team who made seven straight semifinal appearances.
“We’d sure love to be in the top and if we patch it all together, we may get there,” head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “I think we’ve been adjusting to some losses in our roster as the season has progressed.”
The Mustangs struggled with injuries this season, most notably to junior forward Hannah Gilbert. Gilbert, a second-team All-Conference selection who led Cal Poly with 12.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game this season, has been nursing a lower leg injury. She was held out of the season finale against Hawai'i and her production was limited in late in the season.
“We’ll just see,” Mimnaugh said. “She’s really struggling. But she’s a bit of a warrior so I’m sure she’s going to see what she can do and see if she can help us.”
The last two Big West Tournament champions will meet in the second game of the night Tuesday, as Cal Poly plays CSUN in the first round at the Bren Events Center.
No. 7 seed CSUN (7-23, 5-11)
The defending champs two years running got young this season. There’s only a single senior - forward Jasmine Johnson - and two juniors. Freshmen Channon Fluker, the Big West Freshman of the Year, and Cheyenne Allen have played significant roles this season, but head coach Jason Flowers said there’s still times when he’s seen the team make youthful mistakes.
“We weren’t very good defensively,” Flowers said. “We weren’t to the standard that we know defensively this season. We’re going to have to play better defense, it’s not rocket science. And we’re going to have to take care of the basketball.”
Flowers didn’t expect Fluker to be so impactful in her first season but after the New Year, she found another gear. Fluker was the only player in the conference to average a double-double with 13.7 points per game and 10.0 rebounds. She upped those stats to 18.5 points per game and 12.4 rebounds in Big West play.
“If somebody would have said, right before Christmas time, that she would be in this situation, as far as being recognized for what she’s done this year, I would have thought that they were crazy,” Flowers said. “She had a lot to learn in a short amount of time. It’s a process, but she wants to continue to work.”
No. 8 seed UC Irvine (4-26, 1-15)
As the bottom seed, it doesn’t seem as though the Anteaters would have too many advantages, but they have two things working for them.
First, UCI will be playing on its own home court of the Bren Center. And the ‘Eaters will be playing for their head coach, Doug Oliver, has announced his retirement at the conclusion of this season.
“My focus is turning to family and friends from here on out,” Oliver said. “I’ll still bounce around a little bit. I don’t go out and shoot a lot of jump shots - I refuse to leave the ground - but I’ll enjoy this transition.”
Oliver is calling on the leadership of his veteran players in point guard Raelyn Cheung-Sutton and redshirt-junior forward Mokun Fajemisin to extend his career for at least a few more days. Oliver is hoping for the two of them to spur some offense from an Anteater team that scored the second-fewest points in the Big West this season.
“Quite honestly, our struggles have been on the offensive end of the floor,” Oliver said. “When you can’t score and miss good shots and take low percentage shots, you miss the run back on defense and the defensive transition or you’re always in defensive-transition.”