Just because the UC Davis women’s basketball squad has gotten through the rigors of its nonconference schedule doesn’t mean it’s done playing tough opponents.
Instead, the Aggies (5-6) open Big West play on Saturday at powerful Pacific, one of the league’s chief contenders.
But from dealing with the graduation of five senior standouts to suffering a blowout loss at the hands of Stanford, this UCD squad is used to challenges.
Aggie head coach Jennifer Gross, seemingly unfazed by the hurdles that lie ahead for her local women, is beaming with confidence as the most challenging portion of the 2012-13 campaign nears.
“The thing that excites me most is when I think of where we were at the opening game (Pepperdine), and where we are now,” said the second-year mentor. “We are, hands down, a completely different team.
“Heading into conference, it’s fun to think of having a clean slate, and it being a fresh start. However, I know personally that it’s not back to the beginning for us. We’ve had some huge growth since November.”
Gross’ interpretation of her young squad’s progress was evident to all as UCD ended its holiday break on a three-game winning streak. The Aggies beat Santa Clara, USC and CSU Bakersfield to bounce back from a 2-4 start to the season.
And though UCD’s final nonconference contest was 66-65 overtime loss to rival Sacramento State (6-5) on Sunday at The Nest — with the Hornets scoring the game-winning layup with just 1.2 seconds left — there were more positives from that outing.
Top scorer Sydnee Fipps nabbed her first double-double with 19 points and 12 rebounds in the loss. In addition, the support of the Aggie freshmen — such as Alyson Doherty and Heidi Johnson — almost fetched the Aggies a win.
Senior Blair Shinoda said the UCD newcomers are responding well to their collegiate introduction, and it’s one of the reasons she remains undeterred by the upcoming Big West slate.
“I’m actually really excited to see conference coming up,” Shinoda explained. “Everyone has been working hard. We’re on an upward slope, and we’ve been gaining momentum.
“We lost a tough one versus Sac State, but we’ve learned from it. The intensity that we came out in that match was a great starting point to how hard we’ll need to play for conference.”
Still, a road game against Pacific (10-2) won’t be easy for the Aggies, especially considering that the Tigers finished nonconference play with the most wins since 1984-85, the year they entered the Big West.
Pacific is led by senior Kendall Rodriguez, who recently topped 1,000 career points. The experienced forward has scored in double digits in all but four 2012-13 games.
“They have a lot of experience of their team, and they’re clearly playing like veterans,” Gross said. “This will be a good early test for us. We’re going to have to be on our game, and ready to play our best.”
The Aggies continue their road trip by traveling to Cal Poly (6-5) next Thursday, then to CSU Bakersfield for a nonleague matchup on Jan. 12. Even when UCD comes home, the competition remains tough. The first Big West contest at The Pavilion, on Jan. 17, features Cal State Northridge (6-5), the preseason pick to win the conference.
After that, league newcomer Hawaii (4-7) is the visitor on Jan 19. Looking ahead, Gross expects this unfamiliar opponent to be a formidable one:
“Hawaii brings a big name with them. They’ve had a successful program in the past. They have a new coach, with a new style. We don’t know too much about them. I do know it’s a coach who emphasizes defense, and I have no doubt they will be tough.
“Overall, I’ve been pleased to see how well our conference is doing. We have a number of wins against Pac-12 teams. We’ve made huge strides in our placement, as a conference, and we’re proving the Big West is definitely on the rise.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at email@example.com or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett