Golden Eagles cap historic year with first NCAA Tournament game in over a decade

University Times Digital

Alysia Burke , Senior Video Reporter

For the first time since 2012, the Cal State LA women’s basketball team scored a spot in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II tournament.

The Golden Eagles had just come off of a semi-finals loss in the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) conference tournament against Cal State San Marcos, when they found out they had earned the No. 5 seed in the West Region, and would face No. 4 Montana State-Billings. 

The call to the DII “big dance” was the cherry on top of a historic year, as the Golden Eagles had just set a new program record for conference wins during the regular season with 16. The team also featured Captain Nicole Flennaugh, who during the 2022-2023 season, became the CCAA career leader for 3-pointers with 255.

Sophomore Lily Buggs also added multiple accolades to her name this year, including the CCAA All-Tournament team and to the 2022-23 Division II College Commissioners Association All-West Region team. 

With two all-stars leading the pack, the team was ready to take on the NCAA tournament for the first time in over a decade and for only the third time in program history. The Golden Eagles had never won in the tournament, so the pressure and excitement was high. 

“Hearing we got into the tournament was a really cool moment,” Flennaugh said. “We were all together and we watched the selection show. So it was just really cool to get to recognize this accomplishment…and just get ready.”

In preparation for the big game, Cal State LA Head Women’s Basketball Coach Torino Johnson used the team’s last couple practices to get them ready, both mentally and physically.

He said he reminded his team that what got them into the tournament is what was needed to get them through it.

“Just reminding them of their greatness, going back through fundamentals, talking to them, making sure that no one’s confused,” Johnson said, in response to the question of how training was going. “We’re trying to eliminate anything that seems complex and simplifying. We’re just focusing on it being March Madness and the NC two A tournament.”

Buggs, who has improved her numbers in almost every statistical category in her second year, was reminded of her coach’s wise words throughout the season in preparing for the game.

“Our coach always talks about how we’re building this program, and to be a part of that growth is really exciting and I’m fortunate to be a part of it,” Buggs said.

When asked about how she feels being in the tournament, Buggs said, “I’ve never been in this situation and no one on the team has been in this situation. We don’t really know what it feels like, but we’re all excited and we all want to get [to the championship].”

The first round of the NCAA tournament was hosted by No. 1 seed, California State University, Dominguez Hills at the ToroDome in Carson on March 10. The Golden Eagles matched up against the Yellowjackets at 5 p.m. and were cheered on by a mostly hometown crowd. 

Buggs was the leading scorer for the night, putting up 18 points and seven rebounds. Raya Smith had a nice all around offensive and defensive game, adding 12 points, three rebounds and three steals. Flennaugh and Silivia Fonongaloa also gave the Golden Eagles nine points each with Flennaugh knocking down one three-pointer and grabbing six rebounds.

On the other side, the Yellowjackets were led by Taryn Shelley who had 15 points to lead four double figure players for Montana State-Billings.

The Golden Eagles clawed their way back into the game, cutting the lead to 68-64, with less than a minute to go. The Yellowjackets retaliated with a made free throw with just 20 seconds left. In the final seconds, Flennaugh would make two free throws to make it 69-66, which would ultimately be the final score, following a defensive stop by Montana State-Billings and a missed baseline three-pointer by Cal State LA.

Although the loss was a sting, the Golden Eagles fought through every hard foul, multiple shooting droughts and several turnovers to get back into the game, but was ultimately not enough to take the win. 

The team has four seniors this season, but plan to continue to grow as a program with their young talent, and make another run for the big dance.