Since the SCIAC women’s basketball tournament’s inception in 2007, only two teams have never made it into the postseason: Caltech and Pomona-Pitzer. Until now.
The Sagehens (20-5, 14-2 SCIAC) will host defending champion Chapman (16-9, 11-5 SCIAC) at the Rains Center Thursday, Feb. 21. The team is coming in hot off a 78-59 win against Occidental (7-18, 1-15 SCIAC) last Saturday, and has high hopes for its first postseason berth, entering as the no. 2 seed in the conference.
It hasn’t been an easy path to the top, though.
The Sagehens finished the 2016-17 season with a dismal 1-23 record (1-15 SCIAC), the last seed in the conference. The next season saw a marked improvement, as they finished 8-17 (5-11 SCIAC).
The disastrous 2016-17 season was the first for coach Jill Pace. Pace said that season was difficult, but crucial in getting the team to where it is today.
“I think it’s hard on the court going through a 1-23 season, because you want results, you want to see wins,” Pace said, “But I think that season has influenced last year’s season and this season in a lot of positive ways.”
Naomi Baer PO ’19, a co-captain, echoed Pace’s sentiments.
“We never thought of ourselves as a losing team, and that was really important in shifting the mentality and going from barely losing games to barely winning games to blowing teams out, finally,” she said.
The one-win season also strengthened the team’s sense of community and team values, Pace said.
“Our four seniors this year were all members of that first team, so they’ve all taken first-years under their wing and helped them learn what we want our program to be and how we want to compete,” Pace said.
The first-year class this season has proved vital in the Sagehens’ turnaround.
The seven rookies have averaged 18.8 minutes of playing time per game. Carly Leong PZ ’22 and Kamil English PO ’22 lead the team in points per game, and Madison Quan PZ ’22 dropped a career-high 20 points in the game against the Oxy Tigers.
Pace had all good things to say about the first-year class’ contributions during practices as well.
“When you coach young players, they’re just thirsty to learn,” the coach said. “When you tell them something, they look you in the eye and try to implement what you’re asking.”
Senior say the positive culture the youngsters have created has allowed them to feel “young again.” Baer said that attitude has helped the Sagehens succeed this season.
“Our key strength is definitely our ability to come together and push through,” she said. “We’ve had multiple close games and in almost every one, we’ve been able to huddle up as a team, talk about what needs to get done, and make it happen.”
Approaching the SCIAC tournament, the Sagehens have focused on strengthening their defense, Pace and Baer said.
Although the Sagehens are ranked second in the SCIAC, they are sixth in the conference in total points allowed in SCIAC play.
Their offense is a key strength, as the Sagehens lead the SCIAC in total points scored — outpacing top-seeded Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (23-2, 15-1 SCIAC).
If they defeat the Tigers Thursday, they will likely face CMS — which enters the tournament riding a 19-game win streak — in the SCIAC finals Saturday. CMS scored 85 and 78 points against P-P in two victories over the Sagehens this season, and hasn’t lost to P-P since 2013.
Even though taking down the Athenas will be a tough task, the Sagehens believe they can reverse history.
“From the day I met everyone at the pre-season barbecue, I was like ‘We’re going to win [the] SCIAC.’” Baer said. “Let’s do it.”