Oxy Women’s Basketball Heats Up Postseason Play

Dick Anderson Photo by Logan Bury

After a 13-year absence, the Tigers are headed back to the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Tournament with a March 1 matchup in Abilene, Texas.

Occidental College is headed for the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Tournament for only the third time in school history following the third-seeded Tigers’ 66-58 victory over top-seeded Cal Lutheran on February 24 in the SCIAC Postseason Tournament championship.

As fans chanted “Let’s go Oxy!” from the bleachers, the Tigers dominated the Regals for most of the game, leading by as many as 18 points in the third period. Occidental, which split the regular season series with Cal Lu, avenged an 18-point loss on the Regals’ home court 17 days earlier. Oxy reached the finals by defeating second-seeded La Verne, 76-70, in another road contest on February 22.

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

Tournament MVP Toni Thompson ’24 led the Tigers offensively, averaging 27.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in Oxy’s two postseason victories. (Her 55 points over the two games set a SCIAC Tournament record.) Other leading scorers were sophomores Paige Yasukochi (averaging 14 points per game), Dara Tokeshi (10.5 points per game), and Dominique Cabading (9.5 points per game). On the defensive side of the ball, Ainsley Shelsta ’26 had a SCIAC Tournament record seven blocks in the Tigers’ win over Cal Lu.

Next up for the Tigers: a trip to Abilene, Texas, where Occidental (20-5) will take on host team Hardin-Simmons University (24-3) on Friday, March 1, at 6 p.m. The winner will advance to the second-round game on March 2, at 6 p.m., against either Mary Hardin-Baylor or Trinity University (Texas).

The Tigers previously won the SCIAC Postseason Tournament in 2009 and 2011, when Anahit Aladzhanyan ’07 was an assistant to then-Head Coach Heidi VanDerveer. Aladzhanyan—widely known as “Coach Heat”—took over the program following VanDerveer’s departure in 2012.

How does it feel to be going back to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach? “It feels 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 finishing 5-11 in SCIAC play (tied with Caltech for seventh place), the Tigers started the 2023-24 season with five straight victories (including two exhibition games). Occidental 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 this season “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, an All-SCIAC First Team selection this year, who missed the entire 2022-23 season with a torn patellar tendon. In her return to the floor against the University of Saint Katherine last November, the senior guard led all scorers with 22 points and nine rebounds.

Thompson, an economics/media arts and culture double major from Newbury Park, averaged 24.8 points during her senior season, 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.

Speaking to The Occidental newspaper after her first game back, Thompson all but prophesized the Tigers’ SCIAC fortunes. “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.”

NCAA Division III Women's Basketball Tournament bracket
A look at the Tigers' bracket en route to the Sweet 16.

The Tigers have a tough draw in Texas. Hardin-Simmons is the highest-scoring team in Division III this year, averaging 85.3 points per game, and is ranked No. 16 in the latest D3hoops national poll. (Occidental averaged 73.9 points per game.) An Oxy victory would be a historic first for the program, which lost its first-round matchups in its two previous trips to the NCAA Tournament.

Looking ahead to Friday’s contest, “We’ll prepare just as we do for all games,” Aladzhanyan says. “We have very competitive and hard practices with specific strategies and game plans to counter our opponents’ strengths.  We will be prepared [for the Cowgirls] and leave it all on the floor.”

Any other thoughts from Coach Heat? “We’re super thankful for all the support the Oxy community has shown our team and department,” she says. “Let’s go Tigers!”