Big West is wide-open for any late-blooming women’s squad

By From page B1 | January 08, 2014


UCD's Kelsey Harris leads the team in 3-pointers and is second in scoring as the Aggies begin Big West Conference play on Thursday at The Pavilion. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise file photo

Roll the dice.

As the Big West Conference craps shoot begins this week, none of the loop’s women’s basketball teams have risen far enough to be considered favorites.

“Any night, any gym, any team can win,” is the way UC Davis head coach Jennifer Gross sees it.

After a preseason that saw only one of nine Big West members — Long Beach State at 8-6 — post a winning record, one might see this as a down year for the league.

Au contraire …

Collectively posting a 49-70 nonconference mark, a closer look at the schedules shows a very contentious preseason.

Now the nine Big Westers will duke it out among themselves.

Cal Poly (6-7) — the October media selection to win the trophy — opens Wednesday night at Hawaii (6-6).

The Aggies (5-8) host Cal State Northridge (4-10) Thursday at The Pavilion (7 p.m.) while Cal State Fullerton (4-9) is at UC Riverside (4-9) and Long Beach hosts UC Irvine (6-6). UC Santa Barbara (5-8) waits until Saturday to open in San Luis Obispo.

So what’s up with the mediocre records?

“We’re all battle-tested,” Gross says, adding that all the Big West squads ramped up their early-season schedules.

Circuit teams went 0-8 against Top 25 teams.

The Big West went 2-19 against the Pac-12, but 18-17 in matchups with the West Coast and Western Athletic conferences.

“The records are deceiving based on the level of competition in preseason,” Gross explains. “Every team challenged itself. This was probably the toughest preseason in conference.”

No schedule was tougher than the one the Aggies played.

UCD lost at No. 4 Stanford (66-48) and No. 1 Connecticut (97-37). It opened the season with a 64-55 loss to USC before routing San Jose State (95-61) at The Pavilion.

Pacific, Hofstra, St. Mary’s and San Francisco were road losses and the Aggies missed an opportunity at home against Sacramento State (10-1).

In losing to the Hornets on Dec. 28, UCD committed 30 turnovers.

If the Aggies are to make a Big West title run, taking care of the ball is high on the locals’ to-do list.

“The last two weeks have been great for us,” Gross says about her team’s practices. “It’s given us an opportunity to do self-evaluation as a team and pick a couple of key areas that we really focused on.

“We thought, ‘Hey, if we’re going to win a Big West championship, (turnovers) is one area in which we have to improve.’ ”

With All-Big West wing Sydnee Fipps up to her old tricks (17.8 ppg), UCD ranks fifth in league at 67.8 points per game — an average that elevates mightily when not playing behemoths like Stanford or UConn.

With 102 makes from 3-point land — in part thanks to the emergence of Kelsey Harris — the Aggies are the premiere Big West arcbusters.

Harris, a transfer from Iowa State, has 36 points in her last two games.

Sophomore forward Heidi Johnson has filled in nicely for Alyson Doherty (illness) and Celia Marfone (leg).

Doherty, the 6-foot-3 post player from El Toro High, has returned but Marfone could be headed for a redshirt year. Gross says a determination on her second-year player from Laguna Hills High is just around the corner.

Mix in guards Brianna Salvatore, Molly Greubel and forwards Lauren Beyer and lone senior Idit Oryon, and Gross remains excited about the Aggies’ depth — regardless of Marfone’s return.

“I’m excited about where we are,” the coach says. “Probably the most exciting thing is that there’s a tremendous amount of room for improvement.”

Fans quickly will know how much more the Aggies can improve from last year’s 14-18 (7-11 in league) record. First, on Thursday, come the Matadors (7 p.m.), then a 2 p.m. meeting with LBSU looms Saturday at The Pavilion.

A preseason media poll picked UCD to finish sixth in league.

Here’s a closer look at the other eight Big West teams …

Cal Poly — The Big West tournament champ Broncos return conference Player of the Year Molly Schlemer.

Enough said.

The 6-5 senior is averaging a double-double (17.8 ppg with 10.8 rebounds) and is ranked among the nation’s leaders in blocks.

In a near-miss 96-89 loss at UCLA on Dec. 28, Schlemer shined: 29 points, 16 rebounds.

And there’s help …

Ariana Elegado had 21 points in the Bruin loss and Kristen Ale has scored 41 points off the bench in Poly’s last two games.

It was Elegado’s 22 points that knocked off departed Pacific in the nonconference finale.

Cal State Fullerton — Coming off an 11-22 season, the Titans hope they rebound, literally, as Kathleen Iwuoha looks like she’ll continue to slam the boards from her guard position.

The Rancho Cucamonga native is averaging 7.2 rebounds a game and 10.4 ppg.

Diminutive 5-foot-3 Chante Miles (Carson High) is a load at 15.2 points a night.

Despite its 4-10 record, Fullerton takes good care of the basketball and is improving defensively.

Cal State Northridge — The sweet shooting of Boise State transfer Cinnamon Lister has added a new dimension to the Matadors.

The junior is averaging 15.6 ppg and has nailed 32 treys. At Oregon on Dec. 29, she hit for a career-high 26 points.

But preseason All-Big West selection Ashlee Guay remains the Northridge go-to player.

With teammate Janae Sharpe, Guay is among the league’s best distributors and she’s hitting for 14.3 ppg.

Camille Mahlknecht, a 6-2 center, set a career blocks record with her 150th in the Oregon game.

Long Beach State — Three of the BWC’s top six steal specialists — preseason all-league guard Alex Sanchez, Jade Wilson and Anna Kim — augment scorer Raven Benton (14.5) on a team that has received votes in the CollegeInsider.com Midmajor poll.

While pressure may be the name of the game, the 49ers are still coughing up 70-plus points an outing.

Veteran junior guard Hallee Meneses adds depth as Long Beach should be able to improve from last season’s 16-16 (9-9 in conference) mark.

UC Irvine — Second-year coach Doug Oliver has the Anteaters headed in the right direction.

After a 9-21 campaign, UCI stands at 7-7 and almost knocked off Washington (losing 72-69 in Seattle on Dec. 30).

Irvine is anchored by emerging post Camille Buckley. The senior, standing at only 6-1, is averaging 14.8 ppg and 9.2 rebounds.

“Defensively (her 21 steals lead the 6-7 squad), she has done a really good job for being an undersized post player and being able to rebound the ball like she has,” Oliver explains.

Buckley has some up-front help in another powerhouse — Methlyn Onogomuho is a 5-11 forward averaging almost eight points and seven boards a game.

Jennifer Tsurumto, a 13.4 scorer, seems to be stepping things up, having scored 35 points in her last two outings.

UC Riverside — Brittany Crain, last year’s Big West Freshman of the Year, leads all conference scorers at 18.9 ppg.

The North High (Riverside) grad is shooting 49.7 percent from the field and averaging 6.1 rebounds. Crain is the only sophomore on the preseason all-conference team.

But Crain, after starting 40 straight games, has missed the last two games with a leg injury and the Highlanders lost to San Diego State and Kansas State in the Surf and Slam Tournament.

In the meantime, Riverside has turned to Annelise Ito, who has been solid (11 ppg, 7.3 rebounds and more than three assists a night).

UCR has lost six straight.

UC Santa Barbara — Nicole Nesbit, a senior guard from Northridge (of all places), has served notice that the Gauchos will not be a patsy.

She’s averaging 18.1 points a game, shooting 46.8 percent and leads the team in assists.

UCSB has two other backcourt ballers having good seasons with Destini Mason (13.2) and Melissa Zorning (12.9 ppg) lighting in up. Mason, Zorning and Nesbit are each averaging more than 30 minutes a game.

Junior center Clair Watkins, a 6-5 transfer from Vanderbilt, is eligible and taking control of the paint.

Watkins has collected 21 boards in her three games and seems to be a provider (seven assists).

The Gauchos hope to improve off their 16-17 campaign of 2012-13.

Hawaii — Most people visiting the Islands love it.

Opposing Big West teams? Not so much …

The Wahine have home wins over Washington State, Mississippi and Minnesota.

Hawaii was 17-14 last year, but 12-7 in Honolulu — thanks to the hustle of scrappy senior forward Kamiliah Jackson.

The Oakland native and preseason all-Big West choice was the only Wahine scoring in double digits (15.4) last season — and she picked up where she left off …

Averaging 16.7 points, the 5-11 forward pulls down 10.7 rebounds a night. She’s also shooting 50.7 percent.

But, in guards Ashleigh Karaitiana, Destiny King and Shawna-Lei Kuehu, Hawaii presents problems in other areas this winter.

— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-320-4456.

Bruce Gallaudet

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