No. 3 UCSD's Historic 27-5 Season Closes

    Almost a month after its tough loss in the Final Four and the completion of the program’s best season in UCSD history, the women’s basketball team is still hungry for a national title.

    Will Parson/Guardian
    The Tritons pave the way for new leadership for next year’s team with the loss of their lead scorer and two-time CCAA Most Valuable Player Leora Juster along with three other key senior players.

    Led by senior guard Leora Juster and head coach Janell Jones, the Tritons cruised through the regular season, winning 23 of their 27 games, and were crowned UCSD’s first-ever California College Athletic Association champions in women’s basketball. The Tritons took this momentum into the postseason as they defeated Western Washington University, University of Alaska Anchorage and Chico State in the West Regional Tournament.

    After winning the West Regional Tournament, the Tritons headed to Nebraska for the Elite Eight. The then–No. 12 UCSD team took advantage of strong shooting nights from Juster and senior forward Hillary Hansen to stun No. 2 Glenville State University with a 71-61 win. However, UCSD’s season would end the next day with a Final Four loss to No. 7 Southern Connecticut University by a score of 67-53.

    Even though the Tritons fell two wins short of a national championship, the team still had the most successful season in the history of UCSD women’s basketball and shocked other Division II programs across the country.

    “”I think we did really well [in the 2005-06] season too and a lot of coaches and players from other teams thought it was a fluke,”” sophomore forward Michelle Osier said. “”I think that after what we did this past season, people are really starting to respect us as a program and a team and we deserve it.””

    In the final national poll of women’s D-II basketball teams, UCSD moved from its previous ranking of No. 12 to No. 3 – evidence that the Tritons’ 27-5 season and Final Four appearance made an impression on voters.

    Not only did the team attract attention from other D-II schools, UCSD’s historic season caused heads to turn in Division-I as well. Jones and a few members of the team took a trip to the D-I Final Four and were recognized by coaches and teams there.

    In addition, Jones received the ultimate form of respect and recognition – an offer of the head coaching job at D-I Mercer University. Jones took the job, leaving UCSD after two seasons as head coach and collecting an impressive 50-10 record during her stay. The loss of Jones could prove to be significant as she set university records in wins during both her seasons at UCSD.

    “”Our coach had a lot of energy on and off the court, and I think that made us work harder,”” junior forward Alexis Mezzetta said. “”She would get all of our strengths and didn’t show any of our weaknesses. She had a way of getting the most out of a player.””

    The program has not named a new head coach yet, but Osier thinks that the players themselves can help offset losing Jones.

    “”I definitely think her main role was to motivate us,”” Osier said. “”I think that all her teams are so successful because she has a way to get in your head and motivate you. She makes you know what you are you’re capable of. I think if we find a way to motivate ourselves, we’ll be fine.””

    In addition to the coaching loss, the Tritons will start next season without the extremely talented group of seniors that led the team this past season. The team’s toughest loss will undoubtedly be Juster, who was UCSD’s leading scorer this past season and is a two-time California Collegiate Athletic Association Most Valuable Player. The Tritons will also lose four-year starter Hansen, senior point guard Kacie Kostlan and senior guard Meghan McGovern.

    “”It’s a tough loss because three of the four seniors were starters this past season and all of them were huge leaders on and off the court,”” Osier said. “”We have a bunch of other girls who will step up and have already stepped up as leaders.””

    Juster averaged 22.4 points per game and Hansen had 13.9 points per game this past season to lead the way for the Tritons. UCSD’s bench provided quality minutes the entire season, giving hope that younger players will step up and succeed in starting roles next season.

    “”We have a lot of players that have a lot of potential,”” Mezzetta said. “”This will give other girls a chance to step up. We have big shoes to fill, but we also have a lot of potential and talent.””

    Among this talent is Osier, who started at forward this year and averaged 11.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, and junior forward Meaghan Noud, who averaged 9.5 points a game off the bench. In addition, junior guard Marla Mason and sophomore center Alexis Gaskin should play bigger roles next season.

    The experience that the Tritons gained from playing deep into the postseason this year should also prove useful for the returning players next year. The team played a total of five postseason games as opposed to just one game in the 2005-06 season.

    “”Last year we had gone to regionals and we had lost,”” Mezzetta said. “”I know that experience helped us this year. I think now, it’s going to be easier to get to nationals. Every time you do it, it becomes more comfortable, and regionals were a whole lot more comfortable this year.””

    Not only does the Tritons’ postseason push provide experience for next year, but coming so close to a national championship also serves as a motivation for the team in its efforts to get back to the playoffs next year.

    “”I think we start with a clean slate next year,”” Osier said. “”Last year’s results won’t mean anything, but it gives us a hunger to win.””

    Even with the obvious talent that this team possesses, a repeat of this past season’s success could prove difficult. The Tritons play in the tough CCAA league with Sonoma State and Cal State San Bernardino. Both teams still look strong and have been able hold onto most of their key players from the previous season. Still, it’s too early to make any predictions about next season’s results.

    “”It’s always the teams that work hardest in the off season and play with the most heart that have the most success,”” Osier said. “”That’s why I’m excited about this off season.””

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