ANAHEIM – Emilie Johnson’s mouth said one thing, but the rest of her body said another.
Fatigue had seeped into UCSB’s sophomore guard, who played all 40 minutes of her third do-or-die basketball game in three days. It did not defeat her – she fought it to the end – but it helped UC Davis conquer the Gaucho women, 63-53, in the semifinals of the Big West Tournament.
No longer is the women’s portion of the tournament going to be referred to as the “UCSB Invitational.” That had become the theme for the past 13 years – the Gaucho had women played in every championship game since 1996. But on Saturday afternoon, UC Davis and UC Riverside will be playing for the title and a berth in the NCAA women’s tournament.
The Gauchos tried to make Friday’s game a microcosm of their season – bad start, strong finish – but their start was really bad. They committed 19 turnovers in the first half, enabling the Aggies to take a 38-24 lead.
UCSB clawed back in the second half. With 3:21 remaining, a steal and layup by Meagan Williams trimmed the Aggies’ lead to two points, 53-51. Haylee Donaghe of Davis then made the most significant basket of the game. With the shot clock winding down, she fought off a double-team in the paint and willed the ball into the hoop.
That was the beginning of an 8-0 run by the Aggies that sealed UCSB’s doom. During that span, Johnson hoisted up a couple of three-point attempts that were off target, and Donaghe, the Big West defensive player of the year, made one of her six steals.
Johnson, who had played all but one minute of UCSB’s 23-point win over Long Beach State the day before, refused to use fatigue as an excuse for her 11 missed shots and eight turnovers. “I just missed shots,” she said. “It wasn’t because I was tired, but because I wasn’t focused.”
UC Davis, the top-seeded team, enjoyed a week of practice before Friday’s game. Aggies coach Sandy Simpson had an accurate take on UCSB’s situation.
“I’ve got to guess that in your third game in three days, it’s more of a challenge to hit perimeter shots,” he said. “The legs are not there.” Nevertheless, he was impressed by Johnson’s persistence. “Emilie’s a miracle,” Simpson said. “I don’t know how she plays with such intensity all the time.”
Coach Lindsay Gottlieb said she was proud of her Gauchos: “I asked the team at halftime, how do they respond – do we play the victim here or do we want to come out like champions. I thought our effort in the second half was like a championship team.”
Simpson concurred. “We had a run at the end of the first half that would have broken the spirit of some teams,” the Davis coach said.
Williams led the Gauchos with 17 points. The senior guard averaged 21 points in the tournament. Junior center Mekia Valentine recorded her third straight double-double (11 points, 13 rebounds) and her 11th of the season.
The Gauchos finished with a 15-17 record, but it looked a lot worse in mid-February, when they were 8-16. Gottlieb said the team’s resilience is “something I’m going to remember the rest of my life.”
UC Davis is 21-9, its victory Friday a reward for taking care of business earlier in the season.