Gary Stewart had seen enough.
After the UC Davis men’s basketball coach saw the Aggies give up a season-high 95 points in a loss to Loyola on Dec. 21, Stewart had a message for his team: You’re not going to win games at the Division I level by trading baskets.
“It’s no secret we didn’t play as well as we should have on the defensive end for the past month,” Stewart said.
In its four days of practice following a quick Christmas break, UC Davis‘ focus became giving its defense a makeover. Taking charges, extra sprints – if there was a chance it’d keep their opponents from scoring, the Aggies were doing it.
“It was pretty intense,” said senior guard Vince Oliver.
The much-improved UC Davis defense was on display its next time out, giving Dartmouth fits all night en route to a 72-41 win on Tuesday.
“We locked up for the whole game,” Oliver said. “We’ve had some games where we’ve done it for a half, but we put it together tonight. We’ve shown we can do it, so we’ve got to bring it every night.“
The Aggies held the Big Green to a lowly 27.5 percent field goal rate while forcing 27 turnovers, good for season bests in both categories.
“The past four or five games, people have been scoring 80 and 90 points on us,“ said sophomore guard Mark Payne. “That’s not the way we want to play. That was our main focus all week. Now, we know we’re capable of holding teams to 40 and 50 points.“
The win snaps a brief two-game losing skid, giving the Aggies some momentum heading into Big West Conference competition.
UC Davis opens league play at Cal State Northridge tonight at 7:05 p.m. The Matadors (4-8, 1-1) were voted the conference’s preseason favorites.
“[Beating Dartmouth] was big for us,” Payne said. “We didn’t want to go into league with a losing streak. …We’re confident. We’re ready to go.“
Don’t let the Aggies 5-8 record fool you – they should be confident.
UC Davis dropped its first two contests of the season in Ames, Iowa at the World Vision Basketball Classic against a pair of tough opponents in Iowa State (10-4) and Wisconsin-Milwaukee (an NCAA Tournament frequenter) by a combined nine points.
The Aggies then headed to the Southeast to face Arkansas (yes, that Arkansas – the one that’s 11-1 and beat No. 4 Oklahoma), forcing the Razorbacks to work for their 68-59 win.
“We let those first two games slip away at the beginning of the year,” Payne said. “We could have won four more games. Our record really doesn’t show how good we are.“
“We’ve done some good things,” Oliver said, “but there’s still some things we’ve got to work on like rebounding and continuing to play good defense.“
Stewart said his team would continue getting better, and that moving David Carter into the starting lineup and fellow senior Kyle Brucculeri to the sixth man slot could be the start of that.
“The past few games, we’ve been struggling with balance,” Stewart said. “We’ve gone to our bench and haven’t had the energy or the commitment by the second unit. …We felt like Kyle would help us in that area.“
The lineup change was in effect against Dartmouth, and Stewart liked what he saw.
“I thought we were better both ways,” Stewart said. “Our starting lineup was excellent and when we went to our bench, we were able to sustain that energy and continue with a great effort.“
Expect more of the same from the Aggies moving forward as they play out their conference schedule.
“For me and the other seniors, this is it,” Oliver said. “These are the last games of our college careers. It’s all on the line now.“
ADAM LOBERSTEIN is pretending he’s on the semester system so he doesn’t have to go to class for the next couple weeks. He can be reached at email@example.com.