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Smart, Efficient Team Play Shows Why UC Davis is a Big West Title Contender

Although being voted second in a Big West pre-season poll might seem like a significant accomplishment for a UC Davis women’s basketball team that just entered Division I play in 2007, writer Frisco Del Rosario actually thought the media made an injudicious choice.

Wouldn't surprise me if voters put Santa Barbara first before thinking, but this Davis team is outstanding.

In senior guards Haylee Donaghe and Heidi Heintz, the Aggies might have the two best defenders in the conference, and if the trap breaks, they've got one of the league's best centers behind them in Paige Mintun.

UC Davis even has the incentive that the NCAA west regional is at Sacramento's Arco Arena, which would make the first round like a home game for them.

Lending credence to Del Rosario’s assertion, the combination of a well-rounded roster and an unrelenting defensive intensity is what helped the Aggies to a 71-49 victory over Seattle University in the Connolly Center last night.

As the Redhawks did so effectively against exhibition opponents, the Aggies trapped almost everywhere out of a variety of zone defenses, forcing bad passes and rushed contested shots. The Redhawks struggled to establish a post presence and were smothered on most attempts to drive to the basket.

While Seattle U coach Joan Bonvicini thought her team got outhustled, "unrelenting" might be a better way to describe what Davis coach Sandy Simpson expected of his team defensively.

With his team comfortably ahead 49-23, Simpson jumped out of his chair and stormed up the sideline to yell, "set the tone!" after two consecutive Seattle University baskets to "cut" the lead from 30 to 26 points with 13:05 left in the second half. Although it may be difficult to imagine UC Davis setting a stronger tone than they had established to that point in the game, it’s that sort of attitude – the expectation that every player, set the tone on every play for 40 minutes – that might help Davis win a Big West title this season.

In the face of such fervent defensive pressure, Seattle U had a difficult time getting into a rhythm in the first half. While Seattle U forwards Ashley Brown and Maggie McCarthy finished the game as the team’s leading scorers with 13 and 12 points respectively, they were a combined 2-12 in the first half, taking contested or forced shots for the most part.

"In the first half we were very, very hesitant – we played hesitant," said Bonvicini. "It’s just that we played against a very good team – smart, one that’s played together very, very well. And we just didn’t play with the confidence and poise – particularly in the first half – and came out second half and started the same way and then finally we got down 20 and decided to then start playing hard."

While the Redhawks’ shooting improved from 32% in the first half to 61% in the second half, they continued to commit turnovers, turning the ball over on nearly 48% of their second half possessions compared to 35% of their first half possessions. It was not only the Aggies’ aggressive defensive tone forcing turnovers, but also the Redhawks being rattled to the extent that committed eight unforced turnovers in the second half.

"We shot a lot better in the second half, as you can see," said Bonvicini. "But it’s hard – we need more possessions. You need more possessions, you need to take care of the ball."

While Seattle U struggled to take care of the ball, Davis got more efficient in the second half overall, shooting a reasonable 44% from the field after shooting 50% in the first half and cutting their turnover percentage from 33% in the first half to 23% in the second half. It is their smart and efficient use of possessions from across the roster that led to them establishing a 30 point lead just before coach Simpson’s outburst.

"They have a nice team," said Bonvicini. "They’re still a young team but they returned all starters. And they’re smart. Smart. They run their offense well – they’re well coached."

While most of the credit for last night’s win has gone to sophomore wing Kasey Riecks who had a game-high 21 points -- including shooting 5-8 from the three point line – most of her points came off spot up jumpers and cuts to the basket. What made her scoring production possible was the efficient and versatile performance of pre-season All-Big West selection Paige Mintun as well as unheralded sophomore point guard Hana Asano.

What makes Paige Mintun one of the league's best centers?

Bonvicini described Mintun as, "…a very good player – smart and very efficient." But she’s also as athletic and skilled as any coach could want of a post player.

Mintun finished with 16 points on 6-7 shooting and 6 rebounds. However, what was most impressive was her ability to handle the ball and create for others from the high post that led to four assists. These weren’t mundane assists where she just happens to turn and handoff the ball to an open player. The offense often runs through her in the high post and she is a 6’2" triple threat with the ball in her hands at that spot with the ability to create offense for herself and others. 

With 15 seconds left in the first half, Mintun got the ball in the high post and faced up on her defender. Spotting Riecks cutting to the basket from the right wing, Mintun took a dribble to the right to find a suitable angle for an assist and slung a one handed bounce pass to Riecks that she caught in stride for a layup to put the Aggies up 33-21.

On another play from the high post with 10:10 left in the second half, Mintun got the ball in the high post, squared up and drove left with one dribble to get by Redhawks post player Carley Butcher, and finished with a left-handed lay-up.

And that’s not to mention the spot up three pointer she hit or the array of post move she can execute from the low block. Just as Del Rosario described about her role on the defense, it often felt like Mintun was a safety net rather than a primary option, reading the defense and picking and choosing her spots. What she offers the team is an extremely versatile post player that can beat opponents in multiple ways. Even if the Redhawks were simply overmatched, the skill that Mintun displayed was quite impressive.

Point guard play is essential to Davis' success

However, Mintun was not the only smart player leading the way for the Aggies. As Scotter described in his analysis of UConn’ point guard situation, "no position has the ability to sink or limit a team the way the point guard position can in basketball." Conversely, a team as efficient and smart as the Aggies probably doesn’t function without strong point guard play, especially not in the face of the type of pressure defense that Seattle U plays. Asano’s steady play not only led to a nine assist, zero turnover performance, but also helped keep the Aggies’ offense fluid. 

Asano is not a particularly flashy player she is a confident ball-handler, which allowed her to help the team mitigate the effects of Seattle U’s pressure defense by moving the ball quickly and directing the offense. She is the type of player that just seems to make the right plays at the right time, recognizing open players and not wasting time getting the ball into her hands. Whether it be taking an extra dribble into the lane to draw defenders and kick to a three point shooter or standing at the three point line and calmly whipping a pass to a cutter underneath the basket, she just seemed to consistently make the right play.

Asano’s floor leadership from the point guard combined with the all-around play from Mintun and the hot shooting from Riecks in addition to the unrelenting defensive intensity simply overwhelmed the Redhawks. For as much as the Redhawks pride themselves on their defensive intensity and hustle, the Aggies just set a tone that they were unable to match for most of the game.

Size and experience separate Division I newbies

When asked if UC Davis’ aggressive defense was responsible to Seattle University’s slow start last night, coach Joan Bonvicini made a comment that pretty much summed the difference between the two teams.

"They’re a little bit bigger, a little bit more experienced," said Bonvicini.

It just seemed that the Aggies could do anything the Redhawks want to do with a little bit more precisely and a little bit more consistently. Over the course of the game, the small differences amounted to a 30-point lead.

As a team that is only became a full-fledged Division I team in 2007, in a sense they are the vision of what Seattle U might want to become once they are eligible for post-season competition in the 2012-13 season.

Transition Points:

  • While Brown was the leading scorer, McCarthy was probably the player with the most significant contribution to the team’s production with 12 points on 4-9 shooting and 5 rebounds. Although she occasionally looked a little impatient on the perimeter, her aggressive play was at the forefront of their second half surge.
  • UC Davis’ other pre-season All-Big West selection Haylee Donaghe played sparingly but was relatively efficient with 3 assists and 0 turnovers in 15 minutes split between halves. If she plays as well as people expect coming off last season’s injury, the Aggies will be difficult to beat.
  • The atmosphere in the Connolly Center was pretty good, reinforcing the idea that it’s a "perfect" place for women’s college basketball. The 637 fans filled the 1050 available seats were not just loud, but really irrationally engrossed in the game. With 2:54 left and Seattle U down 66-44, there was a section of the crowd still standing and yelling defense. It’s irrational behavior in the mostly harmless and joyful sense – being a sports fan.