SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Santa Clara women's basketball ushered in a new era during the 2014-15 season with the arrival of new head coach JR Payne and her staff. Payne, a former assistant at Santa Clara, saw the Broncos win 11 games, including an upset over LSU on Nov. 25 in the Hardwood Tournament of Hope in Puerto Vallarta, Mex. Seven of the Broncos loses during the season were by six points or fewer. Santa Clara ended up playing four teams that made the NCAA Tournament and two teams that made the Sweet 16.
"This was definitely a year of beginnings for our program. There were so many new things for both the coaches and the players throughout the season," said Payne. "We showed a lot of progress through the season in terms of executing which I was happy with. Towards the end of the season we started to buy in to our philosophy of how we want to play."
Santa Clara lost 53% of its scoring from the previous season due to graduations and transfers. The Broncos still had their best player, however, in the form of senior guard Nici Gilday. Coming off an All-WCC Honorable Mention season, Gilday improved and was named First Team All-WCC.
"We had a lot of close games that could have gone either way," said Payne. "Our lack of depth and lack of experience were a big factor. Next year we'll be very young because we lost a lot in our senior class. We expect Lori Parkinson and Marie to have a really big impact on the front court next year."
Santa Clara dropped its season-opener at UC Riverside, but came back with five wins in their next six games to move to 5-2 on the season. The stretch included a win vs. LSU in Puerto Vallarta, Mex. at the Hardwood Tournament of Hope. It was the first win for Santa Clara against an SEC team since a 58-53 win on Dec. 14, 1996 vs. Mississippi at the Wahine Invitational in Honolulu, Hawaii.
"We couldn't be more proud of our team and the way that we played today against an incredibly talented and athletic LSU team," said Payne after the win. "We executed our game plan very well and had contributions from absolutely everyone. It is such an honor to play in a tournament like this with so many high caliber teams."
The Broncos also won the Air Force Classic in Colorado Springs, Colo. with wins over UC Davis and host Air Force. Gilday led the way for Santa Clara and was named tournament MVP as well as being named to the All-Tournament team.
Next up were two games against tough Pac-12 teams. Santa Clara lost at No. 7 Stanford before going up to Eugene, Ore. and going to double overtime with the Ducks before falling.
After the tough road trip Santa Clara opened conference play at home against Saint Mary's and Pacific, two of the top teams in the league. They lost those two games by a combined three points but showed that they wouldn't sit back and accept the 10th place finished predicted by the league's head coaches.
The first conference win of the season came on Jan. 8 vs. Portland. Two days later Santa Clara faced the class of the WCC, Gonzaga, and pushed the Zags until the end.
From Feb. 7 through Feb. 19 Santa Clara went on a three-game winning streak starting at Portland and continuing at Leavey vs. San Francisco in overtime and Pepperdine.
In the final game of the regular season, the Broncos again took Saint Mary's to the wire but a last second shot gave the Gaels the win. Santa Clara finished WCC play at 5-11 and with the No. 7 seed headed into the WCC Tournament.
Having not won a WCC Tournament game since 2011, Santa Clara took care of Portland in the opening round before facing the No. 2 seed San Diego. The Broncos were able to stay within striking distance but couldn't come away with the win vs. the Toreros and their season ended at 11-18.
Gilday led the team in scoring (19.1), minutes (1,024), field goals (189), field goals attempted (481), threes (72), threes attempted (200), three-point percentage (.360), and free throws (104). She also led the country in free throw percentage at 94.5% (104-110), two percent better than the second place finisher (Arlesia Morse, Marquette, 92.5%). Gilday finished her career No. 4 in scoring (1,417), No. 8 in scoring average (11.9), No. 4 in field goals (517), No. 4 in field goal attempts (1,245), No. 10 in threes attempted (367), No. 1 in free throw percentage, Ni. 8 in steals (151), T-No. 2 in games played (119), and No. 4 in minutes played (3,410).
On the single season list, Gilday's 2014-15 ranked No. 5 in points (554), No. 6 in scoring average (19.1), T-No. 6 in field goals (189), No. 2 in field goal attempts (481), T-No. 7 in threes (72), No. 8 in threes attempted (200), and No. 1 in free throw percentage (94.5%). Her and Bertholdt placed ninth on the tandem-scoring list with a combined 834 points.
Marie Bertholdt led the team with 7.3 rpg and shot a team-best 48.2% (93-193) from the field while scoring 9.7 ppg. She added 1.4 apg while blocking 25 shots and picking up 34 steals. Raquel Avila led the Broncos with 3.6 apg and added 1.1 spg. She scored 5.1 ppg to go with 2.3 rpg.
Santa Clara also had some big contributions from the six first year Broncos to help makeup for the loss of production for last season. Emily Wolph, Taylor Berry, Morgan McGwire, and Sidney Rielly were true freshmen while Beth Carlson was a redshirt freshman. Transfer Maddison Allen also made her presence felt. Wolph finished third on the team in scoring with 6.8 ppg and was second in threes made (23) and assists (84). Berry averaged 4.9 ppg and 5.1 rpg while making 12 starts at the end of the year. McGwire scored 4.8 ppg and grabbed 5.1 rpg while shooting 47.0% (62-132) from the field. Rielly added 3.2 ppg and 1.3 rpg. Allen led the team in blocks with 33, good for No. 9 on the single season list, and scored 3.9 ppg with 3.6 rpg. Carlson averaged 2.4 ppg and 2.4 rpg. All told the Bronco newcomers scored 26.4 ppg, more than a third of the team's points.
Off the court, Bertholdt and Brook Gallaway were named WCC All-Academic honorable mention for their work in the classroom. Bertholdt is in the Leavey School of business and carries a 3.30 GPA. Gallaway is majoring in Communications with a 3.27 GPA.
With three players already signed for the 2015-16 season, Santa Clara is looking forward to a bright future.
"Our three freshmen next year will have a big impact on our team," said Payne. "Nicole Vander Helm can really score the ball and do a variety of things on the offensive end. Savannah Hanson is a mismatch for her opponents because she's very long and very athletic. Dru Toleafoa has a leg up because she's already been here for six months. She is a strong, physical guard who can shoot the lights out."