The UC Merced women’s basketball team introduced itself to the national stage Wednesday night.
The Bobcats made their third consecutive trip to the NAIA Division II National Tournament, but they were barely a blip on the radar after blowout losses in their first two trips to Iowa.
The third time was different. Playing the nation’s top team in the opening round for the third consecutive year, UC Merced proved it belonged by giving St. Francis of Illinois all it could handle in an 87-83 double- overtime loss.
Christina Castro paced the Bobcats (17-12) with 20 points before fouling out in the first overtime. All-American Courtney Danna added 18 points before following Castro to the bench with her fifth foul in the second overtime.
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Ultimately, UC Merced didn’t have an answer for the Saints’ Charnelle Reed. The senior matched a career high with 34 points, including a free throw that put St. Francis (32-1) ahead 82-80 with 31 seconds to play in the second overtime. Merced called a timeout but never executed its play, turning the ball over with 20 seconds left. The Saints sealed the victory at the free-throw line.
UC Merced opened the fourth quarter with an 8-0 run to build a seven-point lead. St. Francis chipped away behind Reed and Kaitlin Aylward (22 points). Reed hit a jumper in the final seconds of regulation to force overtime at 69-69.
Deja Jackson, whose heroic free throw in the California Pacific Conference Tournament final put the Bobcats in the NAIA Tournament, showed off her clutch abilities again by making two last-second free throws to force double overtime at 77-77.