Back in nonconference play, the UC Davis men’s basketball team identified two areas of needed improvement.
The first was its ability to close out games. The second was its defense.
One down, one to go.
The Aggies calmly finished off their opponent on Thursday before allowing a season-high 106 points in a Saturday loss. The home split dropped them to 11-14 overall and 6-6 in Big West Conference play, placing them in a fifth-place tie with UC Riverside entering Wednesday’s game at Cal Poly (6-16, 3-9).
“We need to buckle down on defense,” Mark Payne said. “Every night we’re scoring 80 or 90 points. That should be enough to win. We’ve just got to figure out how to get stops when we need to and not let teams get on runs.“
Thursday – UC Davis 85, UC Irvine 76
Kyle Brucculeri was at ease.
With the methodical way his team was finishing off UC Irvine, there was no reason for him to be anything different.
Dominic Calegari sank a 3-pointer with 3:34 remaining to give the Aggies a four-point lead, and UC Davis hit 17 of 18 free throws for the rest of the game to complete an 85-76 home win over UC Irvine.
“I felt good about it,” Brucculeri said of his thoughts as the final minutes unfolded. “We just seemed poised. We were strong and no one was panicking, especially at the line and the way we handled [Irvine’s] pressure.
“Everyone looked like we were focused and ready to win. We knew the game was in our hands, and I’m proud of our confidence as we finished it.“
Brucculeri helped start it in the first half, hitting all four of his shots, three of which were 3-pointers, as the Aggies went into halftime up 38-32.
The lead built to as many as 11 points in the second half after Joe Harden capped a 10-0 run with a jumper in the paint, giving UC Davis a 56-45 advantage with 10:48 remaining.
Led by Eric Wise, Irvine slowly chipped away at the lead, closing it to one with 3:37 left entering a timeout.
That’s when the Aggies began to put away from the Anteaters for good.
Right out of the timeout, Calegari worked off a Payne screen and was freed up at the top of the arc. The 6-foot-10 junior squared his shoulders and drained a 3-pointer to build UC Davis‘ lead to 68-64. The Aggies‘ free throw shooting took care of the rest.
“That’s a set we run for Dom,” Brucculeri said. “He’s money from up there. That’s his shot, and he knocked it down.“
Harden led UC Davis with 24 points and eight rebounds, and Payne added 14 points and a team-high five assists to go with his six rebounds and two steals.
The Aggies shot 51.1 percent from the floor and made 28 of 30 free throws. They also received strong contributions from the bench, particularly Brucculeri, Todd Lowenthal, Ryan Silva and Michael Boone.
“I thought the bench was sensational,” coach Gary Stewart said. “We don’t win this game without our bench.“
Michael Hunter paced Irvine with 22 points, and Wise scored seven of his 18 points as the Anteaters were cutting their 11-point second-half deficit to one.
Saturday – Cal State Fullerton 106, UC Davis 95
The Aggies knew Josh Akognon was going to get his points.
The ease at which his teammates scored, however, they didn’t see coming.
Aaron Thompson had a career-high 19 points, Gerard Anderson added 18 off the bench and Marcio Lassiter scored all 15 of his points in the second half to help Fullerton capture a 106-95 win over UC Davis on Saturday.
Akognon, the conference’s leading scorer, went 7 of 15 from beyond the arc to lead the Titans with 29 points.
“That’s a given – you kind of know that you may have to give that up,” Vince Oliver said of Akognon’s high point total. “But what we have to do is we can’t let everybody else have a career night as well.“
Fullerton was lights out in the second half, scoring at will from inside and out. The Titans made 20 of 30 shots, including 8 of 13 from downtown, to lead by as many as 18 points.
Oliver finished with a game-high 32 points and moved to fourth on the school’s all-time career scoring list. After the game, the senior said he was confident his team could build from the loss.
“We just got to get back to practice and fix some things on the defensive end,” Oliver said. “I think we’ll be alright. There’s no need to panic. We’re going to be alright.“
MICHAEL GEHLKEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.