After waiting years to become an official member of the conference, the UC Davis women’s basketball team (8-7 overall, 2-1 in the Big West) entered conference play with the best nonconference record in the league, showing that the Aggies are ready to make some serious noise in their first season as official members of the league.
“It has been a challenging and invigorating experience to get to know the players and coaches of the Big West these past few years,” Head Coach Sandy Simpson said. “But now that we have gone through the transition period and are fully eligible, everyone is ready and excited to compete.”
Last year, in preparation for their first season in the conference, UC Davis allowed two of their would-be seniors – including team scoring leader Jessica Campbell – to redshirt the season. The decision should pay off as the Aggies are locked and loaded for a deep run in the Big West Tournament.
“The decision to redshirt Jessica and Ellen [Porshneva] was planned from the beginning,” Simpson said. “The idea was to reward them as they wouldn’t have had an opportunity to play for the Big West title.”
Porshneva, only the 12th Aggie in team history to have eclipsed the 1,000 point mark, ended up suffering a season-ending injury during practice, but for Campbell, missing an entire season while healthy was not easy.
“It was tough to sit and watch the team compete, but I was able to gain some perspective and am glad to be back,” said Campbell before the start of the current season.
Her teammates are certainly glad to have her back, as the senior wing promptly led the Aggies in scoring in their season-opening win against Sacramento State. More importantly, the team played as a collective unit dishing out 17 assists on the teams and 24 made field goals.
The Aggies then traveled to the Waikiki Beach Marriott Classic, where they came out strong in every game to improve to 4-0 on the season. Davis’ offensive attack showed remarkable versatility, highlighted by four Aggies in double-figures in their second game versus host Hawaii.
“The hallmark of our team is being balanced and sharing the ball,” Simpson said. “We feel like we have seven or eight legitimate starters that can play on both ends of the floor.”
One of the teams capable starters coming off the bench, sophomore guard Anna Harp, was easily the most impressive player in the Aggies three-game stretch, garnering tournament MVP honors after averaging nearly 15 points, including a 21 point outburst in the team’s finale against Washington. The win marked Davis’ first victory against a Pac-10 team in almost thirty years.
“I like Anna off the bench because she is a scoring threat, a good defender, and can play the point,” Simpson said.
After another win back home against an unbeaten Portland State team, the Aggies were off to their first 5-0 start since the 2001-2002 season. Unfortunately for Davis, the unbeaten record would soon be a thing of the past as they faced a tough three-game stretch that featured games against then #5 Stanford, Gonzaga and Arizona State.
Experience would be the only thing UC Davis would take away from the stretch, as the Aggies were soundly defeated in each game. The biggest blow to Davis would not come through the losses themselves, but instead through the loss of redshirt freshman and key reserve Paige Mintun in the game against Arizona State.
“Last year’s big injury was Paige breaking a bone in her foot,” Simpson said. “She broke a different bone in her foot this time, but she’s a very nice player with a lot of talent and should be ready next season.”
After seeing their perfect record dive to 5-3, UC Davis was able to turn it around and edge Saint Mary’s at home by seven. Campbell had a monster game with 28 points and nine rebounds, while junior guard Haylee Donaghe, the team’s second leading scorer, poured in 23 of her own. Junior guard Kirsten Commins, not starting for the first time all season, came off the bench to record a season-high eight assists.
“Kirsten does all the little things on defense, and is very unselfish with the ball on the offensive side,” Campbell said. “Her passes let scorers like me and Haylee get open and knock down shots.”
The Aggies’ next game at San Francisco would have a similar theme with Campbell and Donaghe leading the way with 29 and 22 points apiece, but would end with a different result as Davis lost by nine.
“They [Campbell and Donaghe] have been playing terrific basketball, and in those two games our primary players carried the load,” Simpson said. “They have done everything they can, but to play our best, we need to spread the ball around better.”
Davis would again lose by nine in their next game against Bradley, despite Campbell turning in her third straight 20-point plus effort. In their final non-conference game versus Drake University, Davis would receive its third straight loss to even up its record at 6-6 with the best overall record.
The Aggies have kept the pace in early conference play, by following a road loss to conference favorite UC Riverside with back-to-back victories over Cal State Northridge and Long Beach. While they still have a ways to go until being a true contender in the Big West, UC Davis certainly has the look of a team that will sneak up on a few opponents in its first official season in the league.