Kevin Pham never has shied away from a bold decision on the fly.
The same instincts that told Pham to leave one of the world’s top consulting firms to pursue coaching convinced him to change course in the middle of this season.
With his second full recruiting class in place, the third-year UC Merced women’s basketball coach thought he finally had the pieces to run the 40-minutes-of-hell type of game he always envisioned with the Bobcats. His team’s lack of experience brought mixed results, however.
With underclassmen seeing so many minutes at the guard positions, equally athletic teams with more seasoned players exploited UCM.
Pham called an audible, slowing things down offensively and becoming more selective when Merced brought defensive pressure. The results followed as the Bobcats (14-11) secured their first winning record, made an improbable run to the school’s first California Pacific Conference crown and earned an automatic bid into the NAIA Division II National Championship.
Eighth-seeded UC Merced will take on the top team in the nation and tournament host, Morningside, at 5:30 p.m. today in Sioux City, Iowa.
“I think our ultimate goal has always been to win the Cal Pac title and give ourselves a chance to make the tournament,” said Pham, who has led the Bobcats to a 21-51 record in their first three seasons of competition. “I felt like in order for us to do that this year, everything would have to go right. That’s a testament to these kids and the amount of work they’ve put in.
“Honestly, I think we’re a little ahead of where we expected to be at this time.”
That shouldn’t come as a surprise under Pham’s tutelage. The Cal graduate went all in with coaching in 2011, leaving behind a promising career as a senior consultant at Accenture.
Even though Pham served as an assistant coach at Cosumnes River College for four years, the collegiate community didn’t accept him with open arms. Pham applied for 53 jobs across the nation, ranging from assistant coach to scout and video coordinator. He received a no from all of them.
UC Merced took a chance on him in 2012, allowing Pham to build a program from the ground up.
“He was definitely an intriguing guy, giving up a good job at a big-time consulting firm to pursue his passion for coaching,” UC Merced assistant athletic director David Noble said. “Fifty-three schools said no and one said yes, and look at who is going to the big dance.
“One of the things we talked about with all of our coaches when we were hiring is what was expected in terms of winning. (Athletic director) David Dunham and I gave it a lot of thought and decided by Year 3, after two full recruiting classes, we were hoping to see teams start to compete and make moves in the Cal Pac standings.
“Kevin has obviously exceeded those expectations, and that’s a testament to him as a coach. Twice now, I’ve seen him have to dramatically change his plan, realizing things weren’t working. Both times, there was an immediate turnaround. To me, that’s the mark of a great coach.”
Now Pham’s squad will take the biggest stage for the first time, squaring off against a 32-1 Morningside team.
“This is the opportunity we’ve been playing for,” Pham said. “We’re playing the No. 1 team in the nation in front of their home crowd in the prime-time spot. There’s going to be 2,000 people in the crowd, so this is the biggest audience our kids will ever have played in front of. How could you not be excited for this game?
“I think our kids come in with a lot of confidence after beating the No. 13 team in the nation (Menlo) in the Cal Pac tournament. We were down 22 at one point and went on a 35-11 run in the second half. We’ve watched film the last two days, and Morningside’s guards are every bit as athletic as ours, but bigger.
“They’re a disciplined and extremely efficient team. Our goal is to get after it defensively like we always do and keep the game low-scoring. If we can do that and then knock down a few shots, who knows?”
Sun-Star staff writer
Sean Lynch can be reached
at (209) 385-2476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.