Bringing the Heat

By Dick Anderson Photo by Logan Bury

Playing through injuries, fatigue, and in front of opposing crowds, Oxy’s ‘relentless’ women’s hoops team wins its way into the NCAA tourney

Speaking to The Occidental newspaper after her first game back in action last November, Toni Thompson ’24—the high-scoring 5'9" guard who missed the entire 2022-23 women’s basketball season with a torn patellar tendon—all but prophesied the Tigers’ SCIAC fortunes for her senior year. “Based on our last game’s performance, I think it’s very feasible for us to end up in the top four [in the conference],” she said. “I know we have a fighting chance to win the championship and make it to the. national [tournament], and I’m looking forward to it.”

Toni Thompson '24, Occidental women's basketball
Toni Thompson ’24 (shown in action against Chapman last November) led the SCIAC in scoring this season, averaging nearly 25 points per game. ((Photo by Sam Leigh)

Sixteen weeks later, Occidental punched its ticket to the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Tournament for only the third time in school history with a 66-58 victory over top-seeded Cal Lutheran on February 24 in the SCIAC Postseason Tournament championship. The third-seeded Tigers reached the finals by defeating second-seeded La Verne, 76-70, in another road contest on February 22.

“Our [preseason] goal was to just make it to the SCIAC Conference Tournament,” said First Team All-SCIAC center Ainsley Shelsta ’26, who averaged 13.7 points and 10 rebounds per game for the Tigers in her sophomore season. “Then somewhere along the way, that goal turned into winning the tournament and getting here. We put in all the work every single day … playing through injuries, playing through fatigue, playing through everything to get here.”

In their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 13 years, Occidental ended its postseason run March 1 in Abilene, Texas, with a 65-53 loss to Hardin-Simmons University. Not counting two preseason exhibition wins, Oxy finished the season with a 20-6 record—the Tigers’ best showing since 2009-10.

 Oxy women's basketball coach Anahit Alad­zhan­yan ’07
“Coach Heat” huddles with her players in the NCAA opening-round game in Abilene, Texas, on March 1. (Photo by Scott Burkhalter)

“I’m super proud of my team and this season and how hard we’ve played, how competitive we’ve been,” Coach Anahit Aladzhanyan ’07 said in a postgame press conference in Abilene. “We fought ’til the end every game and though we’re disappointed by this outcome, I’m super proud of the Tigers.”

The Tigers previously won the SCIAC Postseason Tournament in 2009 and 2011, when Aladzhanyan was an assistant to then-Head Coach Heidi VanDerveer. Aladzhanyan—known to players and colleagues as “Coach Heat”—took over the program following VanDerveer’s departure in 2012.

Going back to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach felt “amazing,” says Aladzhanyan, who majored in psychology (with a minor in kinesiology) as a student at Oxy. “I am so proud of my team and staff and really wanted everyone to experience the NCAA Tournament, as it is such a special experience.”

Following a 2022-23 campaign that saw the Tigers go 11-14 overall and finish 5-11 in conference play, Oxy improved to 11-5 in the SCIAC regular season, trailing co-champions Cal Lu and La Verne by two games.

Coach Heat attributes the Tigers’ turnaround “to the hard work, competitive drive, growth mindset, and toughness of our team,” she says. “I also attribute it to our health, and remaining healthy throughout the season.”

That begins with Thompson ’24, an All-SCIAC First Team selection this year and SCIAC Tournament MVP, who closed out her college career with 1,017 points—a remarkable output in a career that was limited to two seasons due to the pandemic and injury.

Thompson, an economics/media arts and culture double major from Newbury Park, averaged 24.8 points as a senior, scoring a season-high 42 points in the Tigers’ 85-81 victory over Cal Lu on January 3. She led the conference in scoring and was the fifth-leading scorer in all of Division III this year.

Gabriela Etopio ’24 Oxy women's basketball
Gabriela Etopio ’24, an urban and environmental policy major from Las Vegas, goes up for a shot in the Tigers' NCAA Tournament opening-round game against Hardin-Simmons. (Photo by Scott Burkhalter)

For Thompson and fellow seniors Amaia McCoy and Gabriela Etopio, “Going from dead last [in the conference their sophomore season] to making the NCAA Tournament is a huge deal, not just for us but for the school in general,” she said after the game. “I could not be prouder of my teammates.”

Looking ahead to next season, the Tigers will return a playoff-tested group of players including rising juniors Shelsta, Paige Yasukochi, Dara Tokeshi, and Dominique Cabading. “Having that core group back, my hope is that we keep climbing,” said Alad­zhanyan. (She and her assistants—Isaiah Gatewood-Flowers, Alma Garcia ’81, and Lashell Swann—were named SCIAC Coaching Staff of the Year in women’s basketball.)

Regardless of what the future may bring, this year’s Oxy squad won’t soon be forgotten. “One of the words that’s on the board every game is ‘relentless,’ and I think they embody that,’ Coach Heat said of her players. “We’re going to give it our all, and they show it every possession on the floor.”