Freshman Roya Rustamzada converted the game-winning layup with 2.1 seconds remaining in route to a 64-63 win over Alaska-Anchorage University—the top ranked Division II team in the nation- March 13. Alaska-Anchorage was 27-1 overall to go along with a 20-game winning streak before facing the eighth-seeded Sea Lions in the first round of the West Regional section of the tournament.
“I am kind of in shock right now, still—nervous throughout my whole body,” said Rustamzada in the post-game conference. “But when I saw obviously that they were guarding Jess [Escorza] and I knew that I had to take the ball into my hands…I knew that if I could just get past that first girl, I would be able to have what coach says ‘poise’ and ‘control’ and just take my time. I feel like that’s what I did and that’s what won us the game.”
The win came at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. Senior Associate Athletic Director Danny Barnts said the team encountered a “hostile” crowd during the post-game press conference, as the Seawolves held home-court advantage.
Senior Jessica Escorza said that the crowd served as a catalyst for the drive that propelled the team to the upset.
“This is an incredible atmosphere,” said Escorza in the post-game conference. “Playing in an arena with their fans, being the underdog, being the eighth seed and playing the number one seed—it’s motivation that in of itself. I mean, it’s what we’ve worked this entire season for, and you know, people might’ve thought that us coming into the tournament was a fluke, but we’re very motivated to prove to everyone that we’re here to play..”
The Sea Lions watched their 13-point lead in the first half slip away as the Seawolves outscored them 40-28. With 9.1 seconds remaining in the game, the Seawolves hit a three-pointer that gave them a one-point advantage at 63-62. That was before Rustamzada was able to knife through Alaska’s press and convert the shot which put an end to the Seawolves’ season.
Out of all of the games he’s coached, Westphal said this one was one of the most thrilling.
“That was one of the most exciting games I’ve ever been in, and pressure packed. I’ve coached for like 45 years, but that was crazy, and I couldn’t be more proud of our girls,” said Westphal in the post-game conference. “I felt we were maybe a little outmanned going into the game as far as rebounding and aggressiveness, but we played our hearts out and came out one point ahead, it’s just wonderful.”
Subsequently, the Sea Lions lost to California Baptist University, 46-73 in the second round of the Division II national championship tournament. The team could not seem to find a rhythm in the first half as the Lancers outscored them 43-15. The Lancers improved to 3-1 against the Sea Lions on the year.
Sophomore forward Madison West said it was difficult playing a team that has had much exposure to their plays during the regular season.
“They knew our plays like the back of their hand, they studied our film for sure,” said West. “So I think that really kind of threw us off, we had to more think on our feet and I don’t know if we had (ever) done that throughout the whole year. It was more like mechanics—we went through the motions mostly. So when we actually had to think of second and third options off of our plays, I think we struggled with that.”
The Sea Lions were held to 20.6 percent shooting while compiling only 15 first-half points—the lowest total in a half since they shot 20 percent shooting to go along with 12 first-half points against Cal State LA.
Despite the lackluster finish, however, the team was able to amass a hot streak after accumulating a 1-7 record during the first eight games of the season. During the beginning of the season, there was speculation about whether if the team would be able to finish with a .500 record, said West.
“So we beat the number one and number two team in the nation, we made it to the PacWest Conference [tournament], which I don’t think the coaches thought was possible when we were 1-7,” said West. “And then going on to western regionals to beat the number one team in the nation was awesome, and I am glad we could do that for Jess [Jessica Escorza]. I know she was worried about her last year here, and wanted to end strong. In the end, I think we gave that to her.”
As the Sea Lions look ahead to next year, 16-year Head Coach Bill Westphal said the team performed well above their expectations after the slow start to the beginning of the season.
“John Wooden, who’s my hero, defines success as doing the best that you are capable of doing,” said Westphal. “So we had a very successful season.”