ANAHEIM, CA-Not too many people gave UC Davis men’s basketball team an ounce of a chance to bring down UC Irvine in the Big West Tournament. When you looked up at the crowd attending the Big West Tournament final between the two men’s basketball teams at the Anaheim Honda Center, it was definitely a pro-UC Irvine bunch.
UC Davis supporters, short in numbers in comparison to the UC Irvine followers, were spread out randomly. Though they entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed, the Aggies had just experienced a 30-point beating at the expense of the Anteaters just a week before.
Somewhere, the unexpected happened for the UC Davis men’s basketball team. It turned out to be a good unexpected trip to the NCAA Tournament for the Aggies after they had knocked off No. 1 seed UC Irvine, 50-47, to claim the Big West Tournament championship.
“Couldn’t be more excited for this group of young men who have been a joy to coach, who have allowed us to push them, to challenge them.,” UC Davis coach Jim Les said. “These guys, for these three games, were dominant for these three games. We weren’t always pretty offensively, but our defense won. Couldn’t be more proud. Defense is underrated, overlooked. But, they brought their hard-hat everyday.”
The two teams split wins during the regular season, with the Aggies taking the first victory in January, while the Anteaters won at home earlier this month. The rubber match centered on the lack of energy that UC Irvine came out with in the first half. The Anteaters played with little luster during the first 20 minutes of play, and as a result, fell behind 24-16.
The entire first half, UC Irvine played and shot the basketball as if they were stuck in mud. The Anteaters connected on just 6 of 23 shots from the field, a not so championship-worthy 23 percent in field goal percentage. That proved to be UC Irvine’s undoing, even though the Anteaters came back to score 31 points in the second half. But the biggest detriment to the team was the number of turnovers UC Irvine commited.
The Anteaters committed 13 of their game-high 20 turnovers in the first half. This is what got them into the deep hole they could not crawl back from.
“They [UC Davis] were physical, they were aggressive, the way that championship basketball is often played. I give them credit for that,” UC Irvine coach Russell Turner said. “I thought that in addition to the 13 turnovers we had really bad shots, hurried, rushed. We didn’t play very well on offense. I thought we’d be able to come back in the game. Thought we had a good session at halftime, gathered ourselves well. Chipped away at the lead we had given up, got back in the game and gave ourselves a chance to win. We didn’t handle the ball well. We had a couple offensive fouls.”
What also did in the Anteaters was the dramatic shift in play of Big West Conference Player of Year Luke Nelson. Even though he connected on a three-point shot with nine seconds left in the game to bring UC Irvine to within 48-47, Nelson was rendered almost into a spectator by the Aggies’ defense, connecting on just six of the 16 shots he took from the field for a grand total of eight points.
Nelson’s teammate and All-Big West Conference member, Jaron Martin, was kept in check all evening, scoring just two points in the game, thanks to a 1 of 4 shooting effort from the field. Considering that UC Irvine had just beat them 79-49 back on March 4, UC Davis junior forward Chima Moneke said he and his teammates took that defeat personally.
I didn’t want anyone else [in this championship game],” Moneke said. “I knew we could beat them. After they beat us the second time people forgot that we beat them earlier in the year which was really disappointing but its good. The fans at the end of that game were cheering things we didn’t like, we remembered, we took it to heart and we took it personally. Coach challenged us, and we challenged each other to be better and 47 points defensively, can’t be much better than that.”
This is the first time that UC Davis will playing in the NCAA Tournament, and it’s a pretty big deal for the men’s basketball program.
“That’s been a goal of ours,” Les said. “We’ve talked about within our program, within our staff, a lot of firsts. The first step was winning a Big West championship a couple years ago and that group laid a foundation of the hard work and the attention to detail you need to have to be successful at the Division-I level. A lot of these guys were a part of that team and they had secondary roles but they learned a lot about what it takes to be successful not only as a Division-I basketball player, but what it takes to be successful in life. We set out this year, not to win X amount of games, but just to trust and buy into the process and be the best we can be everyday and challenge each other to reach our potential, and I thought this group had a high ceiling for their potential.”