AZUSA, Calif. — There was a fair amount of nervousness, turnovers and cold shooting throughout the game.
But the Tritons’ defense was always there.
The No. 23 University of California San Diego played suffocating defense from start to finish and junior guard Kayla Sato scored a career-high 28 points on 9-of-22 shooting to propel the Tritons past Seattle Pacific, 64-51, on Monday afternoon in the NCAA Division II West Region quarterfinals.
"I definitely was a little nervous to start and maybe it showed a little bit," said Sato, who is in her first season with the Tritons. "But this team is so awesome to be a part of and I was excited."
UC San Diego will now face No. 7-seed Montana State Billings, an upset 76-65 winner over second-seeded Hawai'i Pacific, on Saturday evening beginning at 5 p.m. at Azusa Pacific's Felix Event Center.
Senior forward Dalayna Sampton finished with eight points and a game-high 12 rebounds, senior guard Taylor Tanita added 10 points and junior guard Marcella Hughes made a big impact off the bench with seven points, three rebounds and three assists.
UC San Diego (28-4) never trailed on Friday, holding Seattle Pacific (23-8) to just 30 percent shooting from the field and outrebounded the Falcons 47-34.
In a tight game in the fourth quarter, Sato drove with the shot clock running down and missed, but gathered her own rebound and scored inside to push the lead to 46-39 with 6:20 to go.
Tanita’s 3-pointer from the wing extended the lead to 49-39 with 5:40 remaining, and Sato came through again with a driving layup followed by a block by sophomore Mikayla Williams at the other end.
Two free throws my Williams made it 57-47 with just over a minute left, and the sophomore blocked yet another shot on the next defensive possession to essentially seal the victory.
It was the Tritons’ first-ever win against Seattle Pacific in NCAA Division II Tournament play after losing the previous three meetings. It also avenged a loss to the Falcons earlier this season on Nov. 18.
UC San Diego has now won 24 of its last 26 games overall and has outrebounded its opponent in 25-consecutive games.
Although the Tritons led nearly the entire first half, the Falcons didn’t go away quietly.
Seattle Pacific guard Rachel Shim made a half-court shot at the first-half buzzer to pull the Falcons within 10 at intermission. SPU the began second half with Shim’s pull-up jumper, and after Tanita’s offensive foul at the other end, Shim hit a three from the wing to make it 27-22 with 8:40 left in the third.
The Tritons responded though, as Sato made a three from the wing and Sampton’s driving layup extended the lead to 32-22.
Williams’ jumper off an assist from Hughes made it 36-29 with 3:30 left in the third and Hughes’ 3-pointer followed by her baseline pull-up jumper pushed the lead to 41-33 at the end of the third quarter.
The Tritons showed resiliency by not only bouncing back from the half-court shot at before intermission, but coming back to win on Friday after Humboldt State's late three-pointer decided the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Tournament championship game less than a week ago.
"The momentum shifts throughout the game and you have to be ready for it," said Sampton. "We threw the first punch and the second punch, then we got hit.
"I had no problem with a buzzer-beater three, as long as it's at halftime."