UC Davis men’s basketball coach Gary Stewart called it a season of growth.
It was only fitting, then, how it ended last week in Anaheim.
Making its first appearance in the Big West Conference Tournament, UC Davis upset UC Irvine in the first round before falling to Pacific in what was the team’s best effort against the Tigers all season.
The Aggies finish the year at 13-19, nearly doubling last year’s win total of seven against Division I opponents.
Wednesday – UC Davis 69, UC Irvine 68
Mark Payne had the two biggest free throws of his career waiting for him.
One make would tie the game. A second would give eighth-seeded UC Davis the lead with 8.2 seconds remaining against fifth-seeded UC Irvine.
Before he’d have his chance at the line, the sophomore point guard went to the sidelines during an Anteater timeout.
“After Mark makes these two free throws,” said coach Gary Stewart to the team, “this is what we’re going to do.“
Payne went on to make them both, and the final seconds couldn’t have gone more according to the plan.
With two to give, the Aggies committed two fouls to run down the clock to 3.6 seconds. Dominic Calegari then forced Michael Hunter into an off-balanced baseline jumper that missed off the rim at the buzzer, and UC Davis advanced to the Big West Tournament quarterfinals with a 69-68 come-from-behind win.
“We didn’t even approach it [during the timeout] as if he was going to miss it,” Stewart said. “We were confident that we had the guy we wanted in that situation, and it ended up working out for us.“
The win was UC Davis‘ third over UC Irvine this year and the program’s first in a Division I postseason.
Stewart highlighted mismatches in the backcourt as a reason for his team’s 3-0 record against the Anteaters this season.
On cue, the 6-foot-7 Payne finished with six points and had game highs of eight rebounds and six assists.
Senior guard Vince Oliver led all scorers with 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting.
“He had an aura of confidence about him that really permeated our team,“ Stewart said of Oliver.
Eric Wise, who was selected the all-Big West second team two days earlier, was limited to nine points and seven rebounds for UC Irvine.
Thursday – Pacific 67, UC Davis 60
The Aggies threw everything they had at the Tigers.
They moved Kyle Brucculeri into the starting lineup to get more size on Chad Troyer. They ran more zone defenses and attacked Pacific’s zone press like they hadn’t before. They revamped how they usually run their half court offense.
Still, Pacific found a way to an answer.
Bryan LeDuc scored 15 of his game-high 17 points in the second half, including 11 in a crucial late run, to lead Pacific to a 67-60 win. The loss ousted UC Davis from the Big West Tournament and ended its season.
Pacific opened the second half with three straight layups and a James Doran jumper to take a 37-28 lead. Ryan Silva answered back minutes later with five points in a 7-0 run that tied the game at 46 with 7:53 remaining.
LeDuc then scored 11 of Pacific’s next 13 points, the last two of which came off a controversial turnover when Silva was tripped. No foul was called, and the Tigers took an eight-point lead and held on for their third win over the Aggies this season.
“I think [UC Irvine coach] Pat Douglass said it best,” Stewart said. “‘A team that beats you three times – they beat you at your place, that beat you at their place and they beat you on a neutral court – they’re better.‘ We’ve had plenty of opportunities; we played them for 120 minutes. You have to give credit where credit’s due.“
Pacific lasted to the final round of the conference tournament before falling to Cal State Northridge in the championship on Saturday. The Matadors will represent the Big West in the NCAA Tournament.
Calegari led UC Davis with 17 points, and Joe Harden added 10 points and eight rebounds.
“It‘s been a roller coaster,“ Harden said of the season. “We’ve had a lot of highs and a lot of lows, but we’ve stuck through it together.“
MICHAEL GEHLKEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.