‘Relentless’ Tigers End Postseason Journey in NCAA Tournament

Dick Anderson Photo by Scott Burkhalter

Occidental women’s basketball wraps its winningest season in more than a decade with a showdown in Abilene, Texas.

In their first trip to the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Tournament since 2011, Occidental College saw its season end on March 1 with a 65-53 loss to Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.

Although the Tigers’ defense held high-scoring Hardin-Simmons to nearly 20 points below their season average, the Cowgirls blew the game open in the third quarter, leading by as many as 25 points. A late surge in scoring by the Tigers cut the lead to 12, but it wasn’t enough on a night where Occidental went 19-for-63 (30.2%) in field goals. Not counting two preseason exhibition wins, Occidental finished the season with a 20-6 record—the Tigers’ best showing since the 2009-10 season. 

“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.” 

Oxy's women's basketball team after winning the SCIAC Tournament.
Oxy's women's basketball team after winning the SCIAC Postseason Tournament on February 24. Photo by Logan Bury

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.

With her 15-point showing against the Cowgirls, SCIAC Tournament MVP and First Team All-SCIAC selection Toni Thompson ’24 closed out her college career with 1,017 points—a remarkable output in a career that was limited to two seasons on the floor (having missed her junior year with a torn patellar tendon).

For Thompson and fellow seniors Gabriela Etopio and Amaia McCoy, “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 couldn’t be prouder of my teammates.”

Ainsley Shelsta ’26, Oxy women's basketball
First Team All-SCIAC selection Ainsley Shelsta ’26 battles for a rebound against Hardin-Simmons' Mary Jo Parker. Photo by Scott Burkhalter

“At the beginning of the season, we knew that we were going to have a special group,” 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. “Our [preseason] goal was to just make it to the SCIAC Conference Tournament. 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.” 

Despite playing more than 1,250 miles from home in front of a rowdy Cowgirls home crowd, the Tigers made some noise of their own in the Mabee Athletic Complex, as a small but vocal contingent of friends, family, alumni, and former players made the trip to cheer on Oxy.

“I feel like that’s a real testament to Oxy pride,” Shelsta said. “We’re always going to go out there and play with pride, and we are going to play for the name on our [jerseys]. While the environment was a bit louder than normal, we just tried to focus on the people that were there for us and have had our backs this whole time.” 

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 certainly is that we keep climbing,” said Aladzhanyan, the Tigers’ head coach since 2012. (Last week, she and assistant coaches Isaiah Gatewood-Flowers, Alma Garcia ’81, and Lashell Swan were named SCIAC Coaching Staff of the Year in women’s basketball.)

Regardless of that 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,” Aladzhanyan said of her players. “We’re going to give it our all, and they show it every possession on the floor.”

Top photo: All-SCIAC selection Toni Thompson ’24 (in action against Hardin-Simmons) closed out her college career with 1,017 points.