The Occidental women’s basketball team (8-6 SCIAC, 12-11 overall) lost in heartbreaking fashion to SCIAC rival Redlands on Saturday. The Tigers pulled within three points with 1:30 remaining, but could not close the gap and fell 55-60. The loss resigned Occidental to fifth place with two games left in the season, and after a Redlands win on Monday, effectively ended their chances for a playoff spot.
Coming up just short of their first playoff berth since 2013 is undeniably frustrating, but with a chance to crack ten wins in conference play, the team has a lot to be optimistic about.
The Tigers played themselves into contention thanks to outstanding performances by young players and a starting lineup that has gelled since the beginning of the season.
“I think this team is really special. We all get along really well which helps with our great team chemistry and support of one another,” team captain Erin Matsumoto (senior) said.
The squad has performed exceptionally throughout the year. Their season includes highlights such as their last-second victory over conference champions Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
The team has flourished under head coach Anahit Aladzhanyan, known as Coach Heat from her playing days at Occidental. She has nurtured a young squad by focusing on creating an inclusive and cohesive ethos within the team.
“I can’t really say that I had any expectations about wins or losses or anything. My expectations had to do with creating a culture that my team was going to buy into and making sure that we put forth our best effort,” Aladzhanyan said.
The Tigers hope to continue building that culture while returning their entire team save for a single graduating senior: team captain Erin Matsumoto, who has provided a valuable veteran presence in addition to her team-leading 2.5 assists per game. Throughout the year, Matsumoto has shone in a leadership role and her hard work has not gone unnoticed by Aladzhanyan.
“I think everyone respects Erin,” Aladzhanyan said. “I know I’m going to miss her, I don’t want her to graduate.”
Matsumoto sang the praises of her teammates and paid tribute to the talented first-years that have been at the heart of this season’s success.
“Getting used to playing college basketball in your first year of play can be challenging but I think they’re all on board with our program,” Matsumoto said.
Coach Heat acknowledged the impact this year’s freshman class has had on the team but also credited the team’s upperclassmen for helping them make their transition so smooth.
“We have a really solid first-year class that elevated the talent for us and our experienced, older players have done a really nice job of welcoming them and really creating a really cohesive, fun team environment,” Aladzhanyan said.
Triana Anderson (junior) was a bright spot for the Tigers this season. Besides scoring the game-winning lay-up against Claremont-Mckenna-Scripts, Anderson has led the team in points per game and ranks fifth in the SCIAC in this category.
“Returning as an upperclassman, I think the biggest difference has been my mental maturity. This season I have done a better job at identifying and working as hard as I can on the things I can change and not wasting time worrying about the things I can’t control,” Anderson said.
The guard has impressed at both ends of the court the season averaging 12.6 points and 5.1 rebounds a game.
“She has really stepped up to become an offensive threat,” Matsumoto said.
Both Aladzhanyan coach and Matsumoto captain emphasized that this season was not one of individual success but of the team coming together to achieve their goals.
“I think we [really] kind of focus in on a team-orientated mentality and so it’s hard for me to talk about one, two people and not other people [because] everyone’s stepped up,” Aladzhanyan said.
Although they did not make it to the SCIAC post-season, the Tigers’ season has been an impressive body of work. This is the same team that finished the 2014 season with a 2-14 record. They have improved every year since, and if their young core can follow Matsumoto’s lead, they may just follow suit in the 2018 season.