Cal State Dominguez Hills women’s basketball celebrates historic run to Elite Eight

There was no epiphany. This women’s team gradually realized that it was playing basketball at a level not seen at a school forever in the shadow of USC and UCLA, one victory after another.

By the time Cal State Dominguez Hills went 19-0, it was clear that unprecedented accomplishments were on the horizon, that the opportunity for something unimaginable in any other year was within its grasp.

The Toros (31-2) will travel to Missouri to prepare to play Catawba (28-5) — a college in Salisbury, NC — in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight starting Monday. They have already won the Western Region championship for the first time while hosting the tournament for the first time. They also won the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. The title

The Cal State Dominguez Hills women’s basketball team and support staff celebrate after advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.

(Matt Brown / Cal State Dominguez Hills)

And they climbed to No. 4 in the national rankings, a rarity for a program that had been ranked just once before, at No. 18 in 1984-85.

“For this to be special, I wasn’t sure for a while,” Dominguez Hills coach John Bonner said. “In November, even during December, with the pre-season opponents gathered, it became clear that it was a different team, the way they win and our chemistry.

“We accepted that something good will happen this year. But we couldn’t have predicted that it would be so good.’

Excellence on the court was always secondary to the family atmosphere and camaraderie since Bonner took over before the 2016-17 season. His first team went 7-20, and it wasn’t until he went 13-12 last season that the Toros were on the sunny side of .500.

“The thing that people don’t see all the time, we’re so much more than athletes,” said Bonner, who earned a master’s degree in counseling and family therapy. “The team is connected, they spend a lot of time together. We talk about social justice issues, women’s issues. We understand how smart and brainy they are and how much they want to make a difference after basketball is over.”

“Our mantra is disrupt, defend and rebound. We will use different presses depending on the opponent. We try to get people out of their flow and go in a different way.”

– Cal State Dominguez Hills coach John Bonner

Senior leadership is provided by guard Dawnyel Lair, the CCAA player of the year, who began her career at Wichita State and attended a community college in New Mexico before transferring to Dominguez Hills before her junior year.

Most of his Toros teammates are sophomores, which bodes well for continued success this season.

“It’s a role I inherited, I didn’t really seek it out,” said Lair, who won the Women’s Basketball Coaches Assn. first team All-American honors. “We have a pretty young team and it seems they want to hear from me. I just take it as a challenge. I’m the oldest of my siblings, so I’m used to people looking up to me. The team is like a family. I’m like a big sister to everyone.”

Before the season, Bonner gave each player dog tags and asked them to present one to a teammate they consider an inspiration. Lair finished with a big fistful.

Cal State Dominguez Hills coach John Bonner stands on a ladder and holds up a net his team has cut down.

Cal State Dominguez Hills coach John Bonner holds up a net after his team was cut in Carson on March 13. The Toros celebrated advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.

(Jena Rouser / Cal State Dominguez Hills)

“He’s a little quiet and his teammates wanted him to talk,” Bonner said. “He’s super humble. When we pick teams for intrasquad competitions, he picks teammates who don’t get a lot of minutes. He is the first person in the group.”

Lair, who attended Fairfax High, is averaging 13.9 points and leads a balanced attack that features Lakewood High sophomore forward Asia Jordan and Long Beach Poly freshman Nala Williams He also scores 13 points. Jordan was the West Region MVP.

“Our mantra is disrupt, defend and rebound,” Bonner said. “We will use different presses depending on the opponent. We try to get people out of their flow and go in a different way.”

The Toros have had their way with almost every opponent so far. What do they know about Catawba? They’re not sure it matters.

“Every game is going to be about our identity,” Lair said. “We want to understand what they do, but the main thing is to continue doing what we have done all season.”

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