Embry-Riddle drops Simpson in semis, advances to 1st Cal Pac title game
Women's College Basketball
LANCASTER, Calif. — In only the third season of the program, Embry-Riddle’s women’s basketball team will vie for the Cal Pac Conference championship trophy this week with a chance to qualify for NAIA nationals.
On Saturday, Feb. 23, the No. 1-seeded Eagles beat No. 4 Simpson (Calif.), 81-71, in the Cal Pac Tournament semifinals at Pioneer Event Center.
Embry-Riddle will play for the tournament title at 8:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25, against the victor of Saturday’s other semi, which pitted No. 3 UC Merced vs. No. 2 Antelope Valley later in the evening.
The Cal Pac Tournament champion will earn an automatic berth into the NAIA Division II National Tournament March 6-12 in Sioux City, Iowa.
“I’m really proud of our team tonight,” Embry-Riddle coach Michael Trujillo said. “It was a great team effort with four players in double figures. Shooting 28 of 37 from the free-throw line was huge, but the difference in the game was our 27 offensive rebounds.”
For Embry-Riddle, this was the Eagles’ third dominating victory over Simpson this season. On Jan. 11 in Prescott, ERAU won, 67-55. Two weeks later, on Jan. 25, the Eagles crushed the Red Hawks, 76-45.
With Saturday’s win, the Eagles improved their record to a program-best 23-4. Simpson ended its season at 18-12.
In their third matchup of the season against Simpson, the Eagles led 17-9 at the end of the first period, 41-31 at halftime and 58-54 at the end of the third quarter before pulling away in the fourth.
The Eagles were led by Jenna Knudson’s 17 points on 7 of 16 shooting, including 2 of 4 from 3-point range. She added four rebounds and two assists. Jazlyn Maletino followed with 14 points (8 of 13 from the free-throw line) and five rebounds.
Kamryn Brown came up big for ERAU, too, registering a double-double of 11 points and 12 rebounds. Haley Villegas (10 points, three assists) and Danae Ruiz (eight points, six rebounds, three assists) aided in the effort.
For Simpson, Estella Gutierrez scored a game-high 31 points (9 of 21 from the floor, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range), converting 9 of 12 free throws and adding six rebounds and five assists. No other Simpson player scored in double figures.
Embry-Riddle outrebounded Simpson by a whopping margin, 58-37, as Melissa Pfeifer hauled in a game-best 14 boards.
“I’m happy for the team to get this win tonight, and we’re looking forward to playing in the championship game on Monday,” Trujillo said.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy for the Eagles, however.
On the last day of the regular season Feb. 16, Embry-Riddle had tied NAIA D-II No. 11-ranked Antelope Valley (23-5, 12-2) atop the Cal Pac standings, marking the first time in the conference’s history that it had co-champs in women’s hoops. The Eagles subsequently won a complicated tiebreaker to claim the top seed.
Antelope Valley’s hosting this year’s conference tournament because it won the regular-season conference title last season. In 2020, Embry-Riddle will play host to the Cal Pac tourney at the ERAU Activity Center in Prescott.
CAL PAC HONORS
Embry-Riddle’s Ruiz was voted women’s basketball Player of the Year for the Cal Pac Conference during the league’s annual banquet Friday night, Feb. 22, in Lancaster, California.
Each of the Cal Pac’s eight women’s basketball coaches vote for the all-conference teams. At the end of the regular season, each conference coach nominates players from his or her own team and then casts votes for those players he or she felt stood out among the rest of the Cal Pac’s schools.
Ruiz, a junior guard from Maricopa, helped the Eagles win their first regular-season Cal Pac championship and a program-best 22 wins. She also scored her 1,000th career point in February. A unanimous first-team conference selection for the second straight season, Ruiz averaged 14.4 points per game.
ERAU junior guard Maletino of Stockton, California, also nabbed first-team all-conference honors. Eagles Knudson and Villegas were honorable mention picks.
Meanwhile, Embry-Riddle first-year coach Trujillo was named Cal Pac Coach of the Year. Trujillo inherited an experienced, veteran team from former coach Becky Burke and led the Eagles to new heights, including the program record for single-season wins and a share of their first regular-season conference crown.
Embry-Riddle will face the winner of Saturday’s other semifinal, which pitted third-seeded UC Merced versus No. 2 Antelope Valley later in the evening, in the conference championship game at 8:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25, at Pioneer Event Center.
The Cal Pac tournament champion earns an automatic bid into the NAIA Division II National Tournament March 6-12 in Sioux City, Iowa.
Doug Cook is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at email@example.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.
Women’s Cal Pac Conference Tournament
Saturday, Feb. 23
#1 Embry-Riddle 81, #4 Simpson (Calif.) 71
#2 Antelope Valley (Calif.) 84, #3 UC Merced 77
Monday, Feb. 25
#1 Embry-Riddle vs. #2 Antelope Valley (Calif.), 8:30 p.m.