Benefield: Santa Rosa High grad Morgan Bertsch, UC Davis eye upset of Stanford

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IF YOU WATCH

Who: No. 15 UC Davis at No. 2 Stanford

What: NCAA women’s basketball tournament

Where: Maples Pavilion

When: 2:30 p.m.

Watch: ESPN2

University of California at Davis senior Morgan Bertsch has ticked off just about every box a student-athlete could dream of in this, her senior year with the Aggies’ women’s basketball team.

She’s the school’s all-time leading scorer and blocks leader, she’s the Big West Player of the Year, she’s the MVP of the Big West tournament, and she’s tied for fourth-leading scorer in the nation with 23.5 points per game.

And just when you thought her proverbial pen might run out of ink checking off all of those boxes, she just ticked the biggest box of them all: For the first time in eight seasons, the Aggies will play in the NCAA Tournament. They face Stanford at Maples Pavilion Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

“We’ve come up a little bit short the past couple of years and that was definitely heartbreaking to experience that,” Bertsch said Friday at a pregame press conference. “I’ve been waiting to get to the NCAA Tournament.”

Correction. Bertsch hasn’t been waiting. She’s been working.

Bertsch, The Press Democrat’s co-All-Empire Player of the Year when she graduated from Santa Rosa High in 2014, has averaged those 23.5 points, but also six rebounds, nearly two assists and more than a steal per game for the Big West champs. The Aggies are 25-6 overall this season and went 15-1 in conference.

But not making the tournament in her first three seasons has left a hole.

And a hole is exactly what the Aggies dug out of to get here.

The Aggies came back from a 39-22 third-quarter deficit — thanks to a 16-0 run in the fourth — to beat Hawaii in the Big West tournament title game last Saturday and secure their spot in the NCAA Tournament. Bertsch was named Big West tournament MVP.

“For this group to be here and do it the way we did, where we had to come from down 17 in the championship game to secure that win is special,” Aggies coach Jennifer Gross said.

“It’s hard to get here. It really is,” she said.

And the Aggies’ reward? A Stanford team that beat them 71-43 in the opening game of the season on Nov. 7.

Whereas Stanford players on Friday expressed the desire to enjoy their final ride through yet another NCAA Tournament (they have made 32 straight), the Aggies talked about the thrill of simply being there.

“This game — it’s getting to enjoy this moment that we have been working so hard for,” Bertsch said.

The Aggies draw a tall order in Stanford.

Stanford is ranked No. 6 in the nation, according to the most recent AP poll. That’s good enough for the No. 2 seed. The Aggies are seeded 15th.

In the history of the women’s tournament, a 15 seed has never won a tournament game.

In their meeting in what must feel like a million moons ago, Bertsch scored an underwhelming 16 points against the Cardinal. She grabbed five rebounds and had two steals. Stanford also forced her into six turnovers.

All of those numbers are well below Bertsch’s season averages. And through the season, she has committed just 2.5 turnovers per game.

IF YOU WATCH

Who: No. 15 UC Davis at No. 2 Stanford

What: NCAA women’s basketball tournament

Where: Maples Pavilion

When: 2:30 p.m.

Watch: ESPN2

Aggie Nina Bessolo contributed 11 points in 20 minutes, but from there the Aggies’ stat line against the Cardinal looks a little meager.

On the flip side, the Cardinal lineup was extremely balanced, with Alanna Smith getting 16 points in 15 minutes. Kiana Williams scored 14, Lexie Hull scored 11 and sophomore Maya Dodson, a reserve forward got 10. In all, all 14 of Stanford’s players got minutes in that game and nine of them scored.

And Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said at Stanford’s press conference on Friday that hers is an entirely different team now. And they are entirely better than when these two squads first met.

“I feel like we are much better,” she said. “We are playing with a lot of momentum. We are playing our best basketball at the end of the season.

“We feel like we haven’t reached our peak,” she said.

Both teams say that November meeting should not foretell what happens when the two meet again.

“That is a little bit of the challenge — who has improved the most?” VanDerveer said.

Stanford makes a strong case. The Cardinal, 29-4 and 15-3 in the Pac-12, are coming off a 64-57 win over Oregon in the Pac-12 title game March 10. Consider this: The Ducks beat the Cardinal 88-48 on Feb. 10, so clearly Stanford is a team moving in the right direction at the right time.

But so, too, are the Aggies, according to Gross.

“We definitely were a different team then,” she said. “We took some lumps early.”

Indeed, the Aggies started off 0-3 this season. But they are now riding a 16-game win streak and are coming off an emotional and impressive comeback win to take the Big West tourney title.

Examining the game film of the first contest with Stanford, Gross said she saw inexperience and perhaps a lack of belief.

Those questions have been answered as the season wore on and the wins piled up.

“We respect the heck out of Stanford, believe me,” she said. “But we believe in ourselves.”

Whichever teams prevails Saturday moves on to play the winner between No. 7 BYU and No. 10 Auburn, a contest that tips off just prior to the Aggies’ game. That second-round game is scheduled for Monday at Stanford.

Bertsch said getting here is icing on the cake, a prize in and unto itself. But she’s a senior, so a loss means hanging up the Aggies jersey for good.

So Saturday afternoon’s game may be icing on the cake, but one gets the idea that Bertsch would like to do what she can to make this last.

“Hopefully our ride keeps going a little longer,” she said.

It seems her checklist of to-dos just added one more box.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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