While the Aggies may have started out the season slowly with a five-game losing streak in December, coach Gary Stewart has a message for all the naysayers and disbelievers.
“To those that had written off the Aggies: Not so fast, my friend,” Stewart said.
Battling injuries and a lack of experience, UC Davis struggled over the break. The Aggies followed a loss to Seattle by dropping three straight on the road before coming home to end the losing streak against Whittier.
UC Davis rang in the new year by beating Cal State Fullerton at the Pavilion to begin conference play.
Dec. 5 – Seattle 88, UC Davis 78
Entering the game with the Redhawks, the Aggies knew they were going to be pressured up and down the court.
With only eight players available, UC Davis was unable to keep up with Seattle’s pressure style of play.
The Aggies led 29-23 with 6:34 remaining in the first half, but were on the wrong end of a 13-2 Seattle run going into halftime and another 13-2 streak to begin the second period of play, creating a deficit they were unable to overcome.
Mark Payne and Dominic Calegari both had 22 points and redshirt freshman Julian Welch added 15.
Dec. 13 – Stanford 85, UC Davis 69
Saying that the game began poorly for UC Davis would be an understatement.
“The start was a complete catastrophe,” Stewart said. “It was our worst nightmare to get out to a poor start against a team of that caliber on the road.”
The Cardinal began the game with a 14-0 run, holding the Aggies scoreless until the 15:53 mark. UC Davis didn’t collect its first field goal until almost six minutes into the game.
“You can’t dig yourself into that type of hole and expect to win,” Stewart said.
The Aggies turned it around in the second half, outscoring the Cardinal by a 45-38 margin. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to dig out of an early hole as UC Davis fell 85-69.
“I thought we played with more energy [in the second half],” Stewart said. “We were much more aggressive putting the ball into the interior. We got to the basket and we did everything we game-planned for in the second half.”
Payne led Aggie scoring with 21 points and three others reached double figures.
The Aggies played without four players – Joe Harden, Jacob Ranger, Ryan Silva and Todd Lowenthal – for the second consecutive game.
Dec. 17 – Fresno State 68, UC Davis 57
Stewart called the game a “backyard brawl.”
Undeterred by their defeat at Stanford, the Aggies entered the game against the Bulldogs and got out to a better start, keeping the low-scoring game close as it was tied 3-3 through six minutes of play.
Unfortunately, the Aggies, although able to out-rebound the Bulldogs 32-30, were unable to score efficiently, finishing the game shooting 34 percent from the floor compared to Fresno State’s 56.5 percent.
A Calegari layup pulled UC Davis to within two with 8:09 left in the game. That was as close as the Aggies would get as the Bulldogs ended the game with a 12-2 run.
“I thought our kids fought,” Stewart said. “We didn’t have the energy to sustain what we needed to do the last couple of minutes, and that was to our detriment. I’m proud of the way we played. We just weren’t able to put the ball in the basket enough.”
Harden led the Aggies with 16 points in his first game back after missing two contests with a high ankle sprain. UC Davis dressed just eight players for the third consecutive game – Lowenthal, Ranger and Silva were out with injuries while Welch was suspended for one game for violating team rules.
Dec. 22 – Air Force 69, UC Davis 57
The same problems that contributed to the previous losses happened again versus Air Force.
Calegari, Harden, Payne and Ryan Howley all played at least 37 minutes as the Aggies dressed only eight players for the fourth consecutive game.
With the lack of depth, the Aggies shot 40 percent from the field while allowing the Falcons to shoot 54 percent. For the third time in four games, the Aggies committed at least 20 personal fouls.
In a game that featured seven lead changes – five in the first half, the Aggies got as close as 54-51, but saw another tight game slip away as they gave up a 7-0 run and couldn’t make up the difference over the final two minutes.
Thursday – UC Davis 89, Whittier 53
Returning to the Pavilion after three road losses, the Aggies’ looked like they would be in for another long night as the Poets jumped out to an early 11-4 lead.
That’s when Stewart called a timeout.
“Our focus this week [on defense] was three-point shooting,” Payne said. “They came out and had three open looks and made two of them. We weren’t doing a really good job. We lost focus and [coach Stewart] wasn’t too happy with us.”
Whatever Stewart said during the timeout worked.
UC Davis came out of the timeout with a 7-0 run to tie the game and took the lead shortly thereafter.
Whittier would tie the game at 17 with just under 12 minutes remaining in the first half. Those were the last points the Poets would score for a long time.
The Aggies uncorked a 22-0 run and never looked back. Payne, who had a career-high 28 points, had 18 at halftime – as many as the entire Whittier team.
“I just tried to stay aggressive,” Payne said. “I wanted to get to the foul line.”
Payne shot 6-of-8 from the charity stripe and 10-of-15 from the field, something Stewart wishes Payne would do more often.
“It’s not the points,” Stewart said. “It’s the amount of attempts. We’re trying to get [Payne] to shoot the ball more but he is a pass-first guard. We have to force feed him to get the shots we want to get. He’s got to get to the point where the pros are – the Dwayne Wades, the Kobe Bryants – they’re going to get the number of shots they want regardless of what the defense is.”
Saturday – UC Davis 67, CS Fullerton 63
After snapping their losing streak against Whittier, the Aggies tipped off conference play with a victory over the Titans.
The win highlighted both the Aggies strengths and weaknesses.
The Aggies built a lead in the second half only to watch another player, Payne, go down with an injury. After Payne left, points became hard to come by.
“Obviously from an offensive standpoint we sputtered,” Stewart said. “That was one of those things where our youth showed. But the defense was able to sustain the lead.”
The Aggies kept the Titans on their toes by alternating man and zone defenses until the offense could get back in sync. The Aggies held off a comeback by the Titans with an 8-0 run midway through the second half and Harden drew a charge with 20 seconds left to stop another Fullerton rally.
“[This game] is huge,” said Silva, who hit back-to-back threes to keep the Aggies in the game offensively. “To come out and win the first conference game sets us out in the right direction.”
The Aggies host Big West champion Cal State Northridge tonight at 7 p.m.
RICHARD PROCTER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.