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Nakashima Thriving in the Classroom and on the Court

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March 12, 2019

Few people know how close Ayaka Nakashima’s record-breaking season came to never happening.

The Merced College sophomore guard was convinced she wasn’t that good of a basketball player and told the Blue Devil coaching staff she intended to hang up her sneakers and just be a full-time student. Women’s basketball coach Allen Huddleston is happy they were able to convince her otherwise.

Nakashima’s 91 3-pointers set a school single-season record, shattering the previous mark of 74 set by Megan Karker in the 2002-03 season. She accomplished all that while also getting recognized as a state scholar athlete. Nakashima isn’t done, either, with at least one more game to add to her record as the Devils head down south to participate in the California Community College Athletic Association state tournament quarterfinals on Friday afternoon.

“We could see from the beginning that she was a hard worker,” Huddleston said. “She wanted to be good and has put in a ton of extra time in the gym. There’s times we’ve had to make her take days off, that’s how hard she works. The biggest part for her, was believing in her ability to get it done. Once the confidence began to grow, then the records started to fall.

 

“I think for us, it’s an outstanding example of what some of our student athletes have done. As good a 3-point shooter as she is, she’s a better student. So, that speaks volumes when your players understand student first and athlete second.”

Nakashima’s path to her record-breaking season had plenty of obstacles.

 

College can be daunting enough for anyone. Imagine throwing in the time and dedication required to be a successful athlete, learning the nuances of American basketball and doing it while trying to learn another language and culture. It takes a special person to excel in all areas.

“When I was 15 years old, I came here to America to play basketball with my club team,” Nakashima said. “I had a good experience and I was interested in studying abroad. Merced was cheap and had a basketball team, so I decided to come here.

 

“Last season it was difficult to communicate with my team and coaches because of my English. I didn’t know how basketball was going to be here, but I’ve had a really great experience so far, and I learned we have a chance to be state champions.”

 

The language barrier was so great a season ago that Nakashima and teammate Suzuna Shoji didn’t understand that the team was playing for a state championship until after the title game was over.

 

A loving and supportive team and a full year in the U.S. has helped Nakashima find a comfort level in her sophomore campaign. Not coincidently, her confidence with the language and confidence on the court have steadily grown hand in hand.

“I broke the school record, but I couldn’t do it by myself,” Nakashima said. “My teammates trust me and pass me the ball. When I miss several shots in a row, my teammates and coaches tell me to keep shooting. So, their encouragement helped me.”

As quiet and unassuming as Nakashima is on the court, Huddleston said it was nice to see her enjoy her moment.

“Most of the time, the most we can get out of her is a little fist pump,” Huddleston said. “She was so excited about the record, though. And then to get the chance to meet Megan, who had the record. It just touched her tremendously that Megan would come out and watch her play.

“Just shows that hard work does pay off.”

Women's Basketball Quartet Named to All-Cal Pac Team

MERCED, Calif. - Junior Mia Belvin was named the California Pacific Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Rainah Smith notched Cal Pac Freshman of the Year honors and four Bobcats overall earned postseason honors, as voted upon by the league coaches and announced at the awards banquet Friday night.

 

Belvin's Defensive Player of the Year award marks her second straight and third major conference postseason honor in her career. She was named the Freshman of the Year in 2016-17 before back-to-back DPOY awards.

 

The UC Merced women's basketball program has now had a player win one of the five major conference awards in each season since becoming a program in 2012-13, the only team in the Cal Pac who has that accolade to their name.

 

Also a unanimous All-Cal Pac First Team selection, Belvin led the Cal Pac in steals with 2.7 per game. That number was good for tenth in the NAIA DII. Belvin finished second in the conference with 15.8 points per game and was fifth with 3.07 assists per game. Efficiency wise, Belvin ranked Top 5 in the Cal Pac in field goal percentage (.412), free-throw percentage (.751) and assist/turnover ratio (1.5). The Long Beach, Calif., native notched at least one steal in all but two games this season and recorded multiple steals in all but six games. Belvin closed the year with 2+ steals in eight straight games and 12 of the last 13. She also scored in double figures in all but six games and tallied 20 or more points in ten games, five conference games. In a season in which Belvin joined the 1,000 point club and became the program's all-time steals leader, she also ranked amongst the program's single-season bests in multiple categories. She broke the Bobcats single-season made free throws record and ranked Top 5 in single-season scoring, steals and assists. On a game-by-game basis, Belvin led the team in scoring a team-high 16 times and assists a team-high ten times. She also averaged 4.9 rebounds per game and she is just one of four players in the entire NAIA (D1 & DII) to average at least 15.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.7 steals.

 

Seniors Aubrey Hayes and Mia Shannon also earned a spot on the all-conference first team.

 

Hayes knocked down a career-best 54 triples en route to a career-high 11.7 points per game, 13.6 points per game during conference which is good for a top five finish. Leading up to tonight's award ceremony, Hayes put together one of the longest double figure scoring streaks in program history. Her near record breaking streak of nine games started on January 17 when she scored a career-high 24 points against La Sierra. She cashed in on four triples that game, one of 18 games this year that Hayes knocked down multiple three-point field goals. A double figure scoring effort on Saturday night in the Cal Pac semifinal game would move her two games back from the longest double figure scoring streak in program history. Hayes was also good for a program-best 91.5% (43-47) effort from the charity stripe and 3.2 rebounds per game. From December 28, 2018-February 7, 2019, Hayes sunk a triple in 12 straight games. During that stretch, her 3-PT FG percentage was 46% and that helped her finish 36th in the NAIA with a total 3-PT FG percentage of 39%.

 

The program's all-time blocks and rebounding leader, Mia Shannon, earns her third career postseason honor after averaging 10.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. During conference games, Shannon put up a stat line of 11.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game which ranked her within the top eight of all three statistical categories. Shannon paced the Bobcats in the rebounding category in a team-high 13 games, bringing her career total up to 36 games. The Fresno, Calif., native also notched five double-doubles this year, including a 20 point, 10 rebound performance against the co-regular season champion Embry-Riddle (AZ). Other opponents Shannon registered a double-double against are co-regular season champion Antelope Valley, NCAA opponent Fresno Pacific, Westcliff and Pacific Union. From November 17-December 1, Shannon scored double figures in five straight games and scored at least nine points in nine straight games from November 17-December 17. Shannon was one of two Bobcats to start at least 28 games this season.

 

Cal Pac Freshman of the Year and All-Cal Pac Second Team member Rainah Smith was one of four Bobcats to average double figures and finished with 10.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Over the course of a 29 game season, those numbers mark the closest thing to a double-double in program history. Her numbers overall and in conference play were nearly identical and she ranked top 5 in rebounding in both overall and in conference play (7.0). She broke the program's single-season record with 98 offensive rebounds and grabbed at least one O-board in 28 straight games to kick off her Bobcat career. Smith was inserted into the starting lineup on November 10, 2018, and responded with double figure scoring efforts in six of the next seven games and 16 of the next 20 games. She also registered five double-doubles, tied with Mia Shannon. Smith's first such effort was a 14 point, ten rebound performance against NCAA foe Holy Names University on November 24. Two days later, Smith was named the conference's first Player of the Week for the 2018-19 winter sports season. On February 9, 2019, one game after the Bobcats broke the program record for most wins, Smith anchored the team to a 75-70 overtime victory over Simpson University. Smith tallied 14 points and a career-high 14 rebounds in the game. Seven of the rebounds were on the offensive glass to help her finish the year ranked 21st in the NAIA DII with 3.34 offensive rebounds per game. Other notables for Smith include averaging 1.28 steals per game, 1.21 during conference action.

 

The third seeded Bobcats (23-6, 11-3) open up the California Pacific Conference Championships with a semifinal match against the second seeded Antelope Valley Pioneers on Saturday, February 23, at 8:30pm. The game will be played at the Pioneer Events Center in Lancaster, Calif.

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 A Minority Publication

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