The UC Davis men’s basketball team wants to begin a new era.
It wants to put the past to rest. It wants to be the next Big West Conference champion. It wants to bring the hysteria of March Madness to Davis.
After the team’s recent road trip, people may want to start jumping on the bandwagon.
The Aggies went to Southern California and made program history, downing the defending Big West champ on Thursday before defeating UC Irvine in televised action on Saturday.
The conference sweep was the program’s first as Big West members and has propelled the Aggies to a tie for second place in the league standings.
UC Davis wanted to begin a new era, and that era appears to have begun.
Now, leading up to a three-game homestand, coach Gary Stewart wants fans at the Pavilion to watch it continue.
“To the Aggie faithful: We really need your support,” Stewart said. “We’re starting to make some inroads in this conference, and the next stage for us is to win all of our home games. We need to make that environment as difficult as possible.“
It starts this week when UC Davis (8-10, 3-2) hosts a pair of conference games. The first is on Thursday against UC Santa Barbara, and the second comes Saturday against Cal Poly. Both tip off at the Pavilion at 7 p.m.
Thursday – UC Davis 85, Cal State Fullerton 74
Stewart earned his 200th career win as a head coach on Thursday.
And if his teams keep playing this caliber of defense, he won’t have to wait long for No. 300.
The Aggies held Josh Akognon, the country’s sixth-highest scorer, to 20 points on 7-of-23 shooting, and forced him to commit a career-high seven turnovers in an 85-74 road win over the Titans.
Akognon entered the game averaging 24.0 points per game.
“We ran multiple people at him and made him work to get those 20 points,” Stewart said. “I thought collectively the guys did an excellent job.“
UC Davis, which led by as many as 18 points, outshot Fullerton 55.9 to 36.5 percent from the floor.
The Titans had no answer to Vince Oliver, who went 11-for-16 to lead all scorers with a season-high 27 points. The senior guard was an all-around contributor, tallying five rebounds, four assists and two steals.
“Yeah, how good was he tonight?” Stewart said. “He had a warrior’s mentality, and I’m really happy for him and the rest of the seniors. We’ve come down here four times, and to finally get a victory at a difficult place … is terrific.“
Sophomore Mark Payne didn’t miss, going a perfect 8-for-8 on the night and 4-for-4 from the foul line. He had eight rebounds and five assists to go with his 20 points.
Joe Harden added 14 points and a career-high 15 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the year.
Saturday – UC Davis 88, UC Irvine 85
Being the nation’s top free throw shooting team sure has its advantages.
The Aggies used the charity stripe to survive a furious rally from the Anteaters on Saturday, converting on 19 of 21 free throw attempts in the second half to hold on to an 88-85 win.
UC Irvine trailed by as many as 19 in the first half, but it leaned on Patrick Rembert’s scoring to cut the deficit to single digits. The Anteaters then forced the Aggies to inbound the ball under pressure and convert at the line with a long series of quick fouls.
“Something that’s really important is that we inbounded the ball every single time and we got to the foul line,” Stewart said. “When you’re able to do that and don’t turn the ball over, then good things can happen.“
Especially when you’re making your free throws with such regularity.
UC Davis leads the country with an 81.3 free throw percentage, and it shot 83.3 percent (25-for-30) for the game.
Oliver, named the Big West Conference Player of the Week, was the top scorer for the second straight game. He was 8-of-12 from the field and 8-for-8 from the line to finish with 24 points. He also added a career-high 10 rebounds for his first career double-double.
Rembert scored all of his career-high 17 points in the second half for UC Irvine, but his performance fell one shot short of spectacular. The reserve sophomore guard missed a desperation 3-pointer as time expired that would have sent the game into overtime.
Instead, the Aggies got the stop and walked away with a big sweep on the road.
“This week was a huge step forward for us,” Stewart said. “Our kids kept fighting, and I’m really proud of them. …Hopefully we can have a big crowd when we get back [to Davis] to support our guys.“
MICHAEL GEHLKEN can be reached at email@example.com.