UC MERCED, CA – The University of California, Merced women’s basketball team are champions of the Cal Pac Conference.
A dominating run to begin the second half propelled the preseason #1 team to their second consecutive championship on the road against California State University Maritime Academy Tuesday night, with the final score reading 76-56 in favor of the Bobcats.
After scoring just eight points in the first quarter, the Bobcats exploded for 49 in the second and third quarters while holding Cal Maritime to just 25 over that span. Conference Player of the Year Courtney Danna lived up to her title, scoring a game-high 26 points, including 12 in the third quarter run that essentially closed out the game. She also pulled down eight rebounds while adding four assists and three steals.
Even though the points the team scored during their run were crucial, after the game, Danna, Jecenia Trinidad (11 points, ten rebounds, four steals), and Coach Sarah Hopkins-Chery all pointed to defense as the catalyst for the run. That was an area where the trio of Brittany Martinez, Mia Shannon, and Kayla Polman all made their presence felt. The group combined for 16 points, 18 rebounds, and a game-changing seven blocks.
Rounding out the double-digit scorers was Aubrey Hayes, who came off the bench and gave the team ten points and five rebounds while playing the role of stretch forward.
“We started off a little slow, but as we started to pick it up, the defense responded for us and motivated us to score more buckets,” Danna said after the game. “The first bucket of the second half was huge for us because it immediately gave us confidence, but also depleted theirs. They knew that once we started going, it was over.”
Some of the pressure to make the key stops fell on Defensive Player of the Year Jecenia Trinidad. In addition to her four steals she was involved in disrupting countless Keelhauler possessions, and also pulled down a team-high ten rebounds.
“Coach made it simple, she said she wanted us to play tight. That’s what I did. I played tight and I got steals,” Trinidad said before also giving credit to the bigs in the middle. “When everyone is able to contribute one way or another, it makes the win that much sweeter. We had a feeling they were going to come out strong to start the second half, so we made sure we came out stronger and didn’t let them get going.”
“It’s cliché but defense wins championships,” Hopkins-Chery said after the game. “We had the scoring opportunities, we just weren’t knocking them down early. To show that impact, we shot 30% from the field in the first half. In the second half we shot 63%. One of the things we talk about is playing hard, out-hustling opponents, and having more energy. I feel like we did that from the jump.”
Other than defense, the key contributing factor to the team’s run was their ability to hit shots from the outside. Hopkins-Chery said when the team is able to spread the floor like that, it makes them much more difficult to guard.
“We have weapons at every position. We have people who can get post position, knock down the threes, and get to the rim. I spoke about it all season long with this team: any night we can get four or five people in double digits, it’s usually going to be a win for us. We can score from so many different positions and that prevents other teams from keying on one individual.”
They say the only thing harder than winning a championship is winning two in a row. Taking a second to enjoy the victory, coach Hopkins-Chery reflected on just how impressive the team’s back-to-back championships are.
“Obviously this year has been pretty remarkable,” she said. “Not many teams get to say they’re undefeated in the regular season and then go win at the tournament as well. These girls deserve a lot of credit. They worked their butts off in conditioning, and throughout the year dealt with the adversity, ultimately showing that in the end, hard work does pay off.”
It’s worth noting the impact the large group of Bobcat supporters had on the game. Cal Maritime fans come out rowdy to start the game, but by the end of the 40 minutes, it was the cheers from the UC Merced faithful that were echoing through the gym.
When pressed about her thoughts on heading to Nationals, Hopkins-Chery said the team will get a day or two to recover from some bumps and bruises, then it’s back to normal, heading back to practicing. She then laughed and acknowledge something that would be different than normal.
“Tonight, the team gets milkshakes.”
While it isn’t quite champagne, ice cream and bringing home the Cal Pac Conference Tournament trophy again Tuesday night are tastes the Bobcats won’t soon forget.