Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Big-time stage awaits Aggies at UConn

UConn's women's basketball game notes list only four probable starters for Thursday's matchup against UC Davis. Sure, eight national championships, 14 trips to the NCAA Final Four and victory margins the size of the Grand Canyon would give any team a lot of confidence. But playing with just four players? Isn't that a bit cocky?

I'm sure Aggie coach Jennifer Gross would think so. And then she'd probably tell UConn coach Geno Auriemma "thanks and we'll take it."

Former head coach Jorja Hoehn and current coach Jennifer
Grosswere part of one of the most successful eras of Aggie

A 40-minute power play isn't probably going to happen but Gross knows that while Thursday's game against the Huskies is a daunting task, it's also an an enormous opportunity. The Huskies have already beaten teams this season by 46, 55 and 58 points but a laundry list of schools would love to have the chance UC Davis has been handed.

The game, cemented by the head coaches while on the recruiting trail, is a prelude to next year's visit to The Pavilion by the Huskies - undoubtedly destined to be a sellout.

But first things first. If anything, UC Davis is catching UConn at the right time, if such a time exists Injuries have sidelined one of their four players on the watch list for national player of the year honors. Only seven scholarship players will suit up against the Aggies. 

But so far nothing has slowed the defending national champion and top-ranked Huskies this season. They're off to a 9-0 start and have beaten three ranked teams by at least 17 points each, including then No.1 Stanford by a 76-57 score, the same Cardinal team that beat UC Davis 66-48 in November.

But don't feel sorry for the Aggies and the lion's den they're walking into. Gross said the team is excited to play on the stage of the most dominant women's program over the past 20 years.

"These opportunities are fun because we get to challenge ourselves but they're also great because they're chances to do something special, and we're always looking at opportunities to give our players a chance to do something special," she said.

For those of us that have been around the Aggies' program for a long time - in my case, nearly 20 years - it's hard to fathom that when UConn won the first in their shopping cart full  of NCAA titles in 1995, UC Davis a was non-scholarship Div. II program playing conference foes the like of Notre Dame de Namur, Cal State Stanislaus and Cal State East Bay. In a way, the Aggies were the "UConn" of Div. II basketball on the west coach, beating teams by 50 points or more.

In fact, Gross was a star do-everything guard on UC Davis' teams between 1994-97, helping the team win 101 games. Looking back at the program then and then seeing how it plays the marquee name in the sport on Thursday brings her amazing perspective.

"When you think about it like that, it's pretty amazing to think how far we've come," she said. "It speaks volumes to this athletic department and how quickly we've been able to move things forward. I think our school has something so special to sell."

Of course, UC Davis has enjoyed its moments on its way to where it is now. It made Aggie history in 2011 when the Aggies won the Big West Championship and went to the NCAA Tournament in just their fourth year of Div. I. They've been to repeated WNIT postseason events and certainly haven't shied away from tough scheduling. Eleven ranked opponents since 2007 - including seven games against powerhouse Stanford - are evidence of that.

Oregon and Cal are the only other teams besides UC Davis that will face both UConn and Stanford during the 2013-14 regular season. 

If anything, facing Stanford so many times and having one player - Iowa State transfer Kelsey Harris - who went up against arguably the best women's collegiate player in Baylor's Brittany Grier, gives the team a shot of level-headed confidence.

"When we announced to our team that we were playing UConn, there wasn't one person in the room that had a look of nervousness or anxiety," Gross said. "Everybody stood up and cheered, 'let's go, let's do this.'"

The game will be played at the XL Center in Hartford and a crowd of several thousand diehard Husky fans will be waiting for the Aggies. Gross hasn't allowed herself to think too much about what will be going through her mind at the moment of tipoff or when she glances down the sideline and realizes she'll be matching strategies against legendary coach Geno Auriemma. 

"I think when I walk in there it'll hit me a little more," she said. "Right now, the emphasis is on getting our team ready to compete because that's what we can do. We're putting our team in a position where we get to show what we've got.

"We know if we bring less than 100 percent it's not going to be pretty," Gross added. "If we bring 100 percent, where do we measure up? That's our focus, making sure that we're going to run our offense beautifully. We're going to have confidence and step up and hit shots. We're going to be really, really alert and focused defensively and we're going to battle. Our coaches really want to see that effort."

And while no coach ever looks ahead to a future opponent - well, at least none of them ever admit to it - Gross makes no secret that she's fired up for next year's November visit by UConn. The Huskies make a trip out to play Stanford every other year and try to pick up another game beforehand. Pacific hosted them in 2010 and Oregon welcomed them last year.

Gross knows exactly what she wants to see on Hamilton Court in 2014.

"When I walked into The Pavilion for the men's game against Long Beach State (on ESPN 2 last season), the first thing that popped into my head was 'I think we can do this for UConn. I think we can get this environment,' " she said. "It was one of the most fun, electric environments that I've ever been a part of in a basketball arena.

"For our players to have an opportunity to play in that environment when it's a homecourt advantage, is something extremely special. It's something that most collegiate women's basketball players don't get to experience."

Thursday is another step in that experience.

Mike Robles is assistant athletics director, communications at UC Davis and remembers some of those routs during the Div. II era, specifically one of them that had a 55-5 halftime score. When the other team was late coming back onto the court for the second half, Robles believed a staffer that said, "they left and went home." He later bought swamp land in Florida. He also reminds fans that the game will be available to watch online at or through the SNY Network. Robles will be watching the TV broadcast in his office and has seating for four (snacks not included).

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