March 15, 2024 

Big West Tournament semifinals: An upset and some chalk

The Big West Tournament semifinals featured an upset and a top seed advancing

Defense propels UC Davis to upset over Hawaii

It’s been three years since the UC Davis Aggies last appeared in the Big West Tournament championship game. But after a 51-48 upset over the top-seeded Hawaii Rainbow Wahine in the tournament semifinals, they are once again playing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

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The program has gone through college basketball’s equivalent of a rebuilding phase as key upperclassmen have graduated and younger players have developed. Interestingly enough, with the explosion of the transfer portal changing rosters from year to year, the Aggies have five players on the team who were a part of the 2021 squad.

One of those players, Mazatlan Harris, was only a freshman when the Aggies last made a run to the Big West championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance. Harris played sparingly back then, but has become a key player now in her fourth season at UC Davis.

She started all 30 games she played in this season and knocked down a pair of clutch free throws in the fourth quarter to help hold off Hawaii. Looking around the locker room, while new faces have joined the program since 2021, Harris sees a key resemblance between that team and this 2024 team.

“I feel like a big similarity between the 2021 team and this team is just the leadership that we have on the floor,” Harris told reporters following the game. “Like I go to Tova [Sobal], I go to Campbell [Gray], I go to Evanne [Turner] whenever I feel a bit frazzled and they are my rock on the team. So I know we’re gonna get it done with them as our leaders on the court.”

The Aggies showed incredible poise late in the game as they eliminated the back-to-back Big West champions. It was the No. 1 seeded Rainbow Wahine who made several key errors down the stretch. The Aggies led by as many as 12 points, before Hawaii stormed back to take the lead in the second half.

However, those errors, some of which were caused by UC Davis’ defense, helped seal the upset. Aggies head coach Jennifer Gross told media after the game that she was always confident that her team’s defense was going to come through despite Hawaii’s surge.

“We knew that if we could rely on our defense like we had done throughout the entire game, that we could just stay in it. And I trust our team in those moments to make enough plays on offense, that if we’re right in it, we’re gonna get it done,” Gross said. “We just talked about doing what we had done all game long which was getting back to basics on defense and just trying our best to get stops.”

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Frontcourt powers UC Irvine to championship game

While the first game of the Big West Tournament semifinals featured an upset, the second game followed the script. Despite No. 7 Long Beach State’s recent surge late in the season in through the first two rounds of the tournament, No. 2 UC Irvine came up with a 69-57 win to advance.

Perhaps one of the biggest factors in the Anteaters win was their frontcourt. With graduate transfer forward Moulayna Johnson Sidi Baba and senior forward Nevaeh Dean in the starting lineup as well as senior center Nevaeh Parkinson off the bench, UC Irvine has a big rotation that few teams in the conference can match.

Against Long Beach State, the trio combined for 23 of UC Irvine’s 40 rebounds and often got behind the defense, slipping to the basket for easy buckets. Against a UC Davis team that also has some size in its frontcourt, Anteaters head coach Tamara Inoue knows how crucial her bigs will be.

“It’s critical, you want to be able to play both inside and outside, you want to be able to have players that you know if something’s going not so well on the out, you can go inside,” Inoue told reporters following the game. “I have some really good post players that do a really good job. I know there’s frustrations that come out sometimes with foul calls, but I will commend them, especially Nevaeh Parkinson. I will commend her for her cool and the way she handles things because it can get frustrating … that’s one of the toughest positions as a referee to ref and as a player to play.”

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In the case of Johnson Sidi Baba, she led the Anteaters with 22 points and 10 rebounds. A graduate student who spent the last four seasons at the University of Miami, she made a massive impact this season winning the Big West Newcomer of the Year.

When UC Irvine was struggling in the second quarter and Parkinson was facing foul trouble, she took it upon herself to keep the team afloat, getting buckets when the team needed it most. She credited her teammates and coaches for being able to fit in seamlessly this season.

“I was just thinking, ‘We need a win.’ So whatever I need to do to win is what I think about when I’m on the court,” Johnson Sidi Baba told media after the game. “I think just our teammates supporting us and also our coaches supporting us, we wouldn’t be here without them.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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