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Monday, October 18, 2021

Column: More than a feeling

Last Tuesday evening began like any other for Gary Stewart.

The UC Davis men’s basketball coach went to a high school game. He watched some tape. He went to bed.

Everything normal about Stewart’s night changed at 3:35 a.m. when he got a call. It was Mark Payne. He was sick and at the hospital. Stewart couldn’t get back to sleep.

It didn’t end there, though.

“We had shoot around at 9 a.m.,” Stewart said. “When shoot around ended at 10 a.m., I was on the phone with Mark’s mom and the trainers from 10 until 10:50, and then I taught badminton.

“After that, I went back to the hospital with Mark, then back home for more preparation. It was a little bit different than a normal script.”

Senior Dominic Calegari tells his side of the story.

“I thought it was a joke at first,” Calegari said. “Joe [Harden] picked me up this morning. Usually, Mark’s in the car, and Mark wasn’t there. I thought he just drove himself or something.

“Then Joe says, ‘Mark was in the hospital last night.’ I’m like, ‘Geez, that’s not a real funny joke.’ … Joe’s one to make those kinds of jokes. He kind of kept saying it and saying it. Then I got here and Coach Stewart reaffirmed it.”

Any way you look at it, the fact of the matter was this: UC Davis was going to have to play Big West Conference leading Pacific without arguably the conference’s best player.

So with no Payne in the lineup and the first-place Tigers coming into town, Stewart was sure to change the game plan, right?

Think again.

“We really didn’t have time,” Stewart said. “We’ve played without Mark before. We had a belief that we built this program on a team. We didn’t waver from that belief.”

You can probably say that again.

In front of a raucous crowd of 2,800-plus, a Payne-less UC Davis squad beat Pacific for the first time since 1940, finally ending a 49-game losing streak.

“You could’ve done away with the three-point line,” Stewart said. “You could’ve gone back to two officials and short shorts. It was an old-fashioned slugfest.”

The Aggies packed the bigger punch, though. They believed in themselves more, too.

“This is by far the best athletic moment I’ve had in my life,” Calegari said. “This is why I play team sports – to have this kind of feeling. I’ve seen a lot of seniors come through here who want this victory and go home empty-handed.”

Stewart wasn’t hesitant to praise his veteran player.

“Dom is awfully special,” Stewart said. “He’s a lone senior. He’s shed a lot of blood for this program.”

With the win, Calegari will become the first UC Davis men’s basketball player to have beaten every team in the Big West.

As impressive as that and the victory are as a whole, UC Davis still has a lot of work to do.

After the game, Stewart and his players were focused on their next opponent – UC Irvine – and didn’t want to speculate on the affect this win could have on the reminder of the season. He didn’t want to talk about the future of the program, either.

Because they didn’t talk about it, I’ll try to fill in the blanks for you.

What it means for the rest of the season

It’s no secret that UC Davis has been slightly inconsistent this year. The Aggies have seen late leads turn into losses and their own comebacks fall short.

However, the fact still remains; they beat the conference-leading Tigers with out their star player.

If the Aggies can ride this victory into the conference tournament, there’s no telling how far they can go.

As a former sports editor once told me, it’s all about getting hot for four days down in Anaheim at the Big West Tournament. At that point, you never know. It could mean seeing the “UC Davis” name on your March Madness brackets. (Thank you, Adam.)

What it means for the future of UC Davis basketball

There’s a lot of talk about a rivalry existing between UC Davis and Pacific. It’s hard to agree with that claim, seeing as the results have been so one-sided.

However, it must be known that of the 49 consecutive victories by the Tigers since 1940, only six of those occurred while both teams were in Division I.

I’m not saying one victory changes everything, but a win is a step in the right direction.

For schools located only 47 miles away from each other, though, there’s much more at stake than just a rivalry.

There’s pride, bragging rights and – of course – recruiting. This victory is progress toward building a perennial Big West power. Future meetings between these teams could possibly come on the final day of the conference tournament.

Yes, this victory is big. The Aggies proved they could win when they needed to. They proved they could beat the best team in the league. They proved they could win without one of the conference’s best players.

Now, we wait.

MAX ROSENBLUM thinks it’s great so many people showed up to watch the game. However, he doesn’t think it should take free T-shirts and television cameras to get fans to go. You’ve seen what your team can do. Now go back again. And again. He also thinks the game was the best sporting event he’s ever attended. Agree with him (no disagreeing) at sports@theaggie.org.

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