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UCD & The NCAA Tournament

The Aggies women's basketball team anxiously await to see their NCAA Fate.

My name is Paulo Camacho, and this is Macho Sports.

For most people, Monday, March 14 was probably another ordinary day – just another Monday in a long line of routine Mondays. For students at UC Davis, it was the last day of instruction, with Finals Week for the Winter quarter looming.

But, for one select group of young women, March 14, 2011 meant so much more than that. To them, it was Selection Monday.

The UC Davis women’s basketball team was only 48 hours removed from winning the 2011 AM/PM© Big West Tournament and punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. Behind a game-high 20 points from exalted Senior C Paige Mintun, the Aggies pulled away from the top-seeded Cal Poly Mustangs in the final minutes of the Big West Championship game, to take the title, 66-49. With it, the Lady Aggies, at 24-8, earned the Big West’s automatic bid to the Big Dance. It was a fitting sendoff for Sandy Simpson, finishing his 14th and final year as head coach of the Aggies.

“To be able to send Coach [Simpson] out on a high note was a really big goal of ours,” replied Mintun. “To get into the Big Dance, to get into the NCAA’s, it’s been amazing.”

They came back from Anaheim that night with the Big West trophy, to a procession of locals, including the Aggie Pack and the Cal Aggie Marching Band-Uh!, as well as local members of the media.

“This is huge for Davis; you dream of being in March Madness,” said UC Davis Aggie Pack Emcee Adam Darbonne. “It’s been fun to see how excited the campus and the students and the community have been for this team … You can feel everybody getting behind this – getting excited for this team. They’ve achieved so much, and they deserve every bit of it.”

The Lady Aggies deserved to bask in the glory of a Big West championship. After a season of ups and downs, the Lady Aggies were going up at just the right time.

“We dropped our league opener at home, had a couple burps later on, in the middle of league [play] – kind of took ourselves out of the conference tournament regular season race,” Simpson explained. “But, we regrouped, and we’re playing our best ball the last three weeks … [they] showed a lot of resolve when they weren’t meeting their own expectations. They re-committed, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

It was a team that was forged in experience, resolve and unprecedented talent. With a majority of Senior and Junior players on its roster, six of nine players who averaged over 16 minutes per game this season were upperclassmen. Paige Mintun, named All-Big West Conference First Team two years running, was an immense talent coming out of La Jolla. She possesses a combination of raw speed, power and leadership that is rare in women’s college basketball.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have her,” beamed Simpson. “Jody Winn, [head coach at Long Beach State] … said, ‘You know, you realize [if she was on a Pac-10 school,] she would be All-Pac-10.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we got a steal.’”

Many players, however, provided a key role in the Aggies’ run to the NCAA tournament. Senior Heidi Heintz is considered the “Jane-of-all-trades” of the team, providing a key role in their trap defensive scheme. Sophomore Vicky Deely was recently named Big West Sixth Woman of the Year, with a talent behind the three-point line, as well as a superb inside game. “One of the best three-point shooters, I think, in the country, that can play a power game,” Simpson remarked. Kasey Riecks is the team’s anointed “Rock of Gibraltar” – in her three-year career with the Lady Aggies, she has started every game, save for a three-game stretch in the middle of the 2010-2011 season. Junior Samantha Meggison was tasked to replace 2009-10 Big West Defensive Player of the Year Haylee Donaghe as their main defensive stopper. As Coach Simpson could attest, she has stepped into the role superbly.

Coach Simpson had much praise for his players, from Junior Hana Asano and her ability to run the floor at the PG position; to Junior Lauren Juric’s contributions from the bench, playing “the best basketball of her career”; to Hannah Stephens, a transfer from the University of Utah, and her significant contributions as a backup point guard; to Blair Shinoda’s talents as a scorer, ball-handler and defender.

And, there they were, at the Davis Graduate, gathered together with friends, family and supporters, to witness their tournament fate, live on ESPN2. The tournament special was aired on the big screen at the Grad, and everyone in attendance – including members of the local media – watched intently. As the anchors listed the teams that would play in the given regions of the tournament, the anticipation of their inevitable announcement was palpable. It was believed that the Aggies would be paired up with women’s college basketball power Stanford, as a 15- or 16-seed.

Then came the announcement. (Follow the link HERE.)

The excitement of the NCAA tournament stayed with the team long after the announcement was official. “This is all-new ground for Davis,” exclaimed Mintun. “The second we saw our name up there, it was surreal. We were all on SportsCenter!”

“I think there’s been a lot of pinching of ourselves,” added Simpson. “When you’re [a child], when you first became aware that there was a women’s NCAA Tournament … your dream is to, first of all, play Division I college basketball, and, eventually, to advance to that tournament. The [players are] realizing that dream right now, and they’re not going to take it for granted.”

And, as for their upcoming game against a familiar foe in the Stanford Cardinal – despite the recent historical success against the Pac-10 school, it would be a lot to expect the same against the No. 2 team in the country.

“Stanford is just one of the premiere programs in college basketball, and has been ever since Tara VanDerveer took over,” Simpson said. “Their athletes are big, they’re fast, they’re strong. They don’t have that real weak spot … If we can get them into a half-court game, and don’t give them transition baskets, and try to hold them to one shot in as many possessions as we can, then I think it could be an interesting game. But, you know, there are a lot of teams who try to do that and aren’t successful against Stanford.”

Despite the monumental task at hand, the Aggie Pack will be with them every step of the way.

“We’re working on getting a couple Unitrans double-decker busses to bus down to the game, to bus students down [to Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto],” said Darbonne. “We’re looking forward to it.”

Win or lose, however, the Aggies have done their school, and their city, proud. They brought their fellow students something no Aggie class has ever experienced – an NCAA championship berth. With that, comes an all-new realm of possibilities for Aggie athletics.

Good luck on Saturday. Go Ags!

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