As the season winds down and the postseason looms on the horizon, each game takes on added meaning for the Aggies.
UC Davis split its final homestand of the season, losing to Long Beach State on Thursday but coming back to win on Sunday against UC Riverside. The victory over the highlanders gave Dominic Calegari, the team’s only senior, a win in his last home game as an Aggie.
The Aggies are now 7-7 in Big West Conference play, placing them fourth in the standings with two games remaining. If UC Davis is able to retain the fourth spot, they will receive a first-round bye at the Big West Tournament.
Thursday – Long Beach State 68, UC Davis 65
Last time the Aggies played the 49ers they lost by 22.
This time, the game came down to one possession.
Trailing 68-65 with 23 seconds left, the Aggies needed points quickly, and didn’t care if it was a two- or three-pointer.
“We ran a play that would afford us both options and get the ball where we wanted it,” Stewart said. “It didn’t go down.”
After several passes, Mark Payne got the ball at the top of the key and heaved up a three-point attempt with eight seconds left. Joe Harden, who tied a career high with 26 points and 11 rebounds in the game, got the rebound but missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Saturday – UC Davis 66, UC Riverside 43
This was going to be a big game regardless of the outcome.
The contest would have a significant effect on conference standings and would be Calegari’s final game at the Pavilion.
The Aggies were able to jump out to an early 14-2 lead due primarily to their strong defensive play.
“We flat-out guarded,” Stewart said. “It was a sight to be seen.”
UC Riverside started the game shooting just 2-for-17 from the field and at one point had more air balls than points. The Highlanders were able to close the gap, however, due to UC Davis’ mistakes. The Aggies had trouble hanging onto the ball, ending the first half with nine turnovers which led to 12 Highlander points. UC Riverside used the points off turnovers to close the gap and went in to halftime trailing 25-21.
The Aggies knew what they had to do in the second half.
“We felt like we played good defense in the half court, but we turned the ball over too much,” Ryan Sypkens said. “That was our emphasis [in the second half] – to take care of the ball.”
Sypkens made some adjustments of his own at halftime.
“I had a horrible first half,” said Sypkens, who went 0-for-1 from the field and gave up a four-point play to the Highlanders in the opening period. “Coach climbed into me at halftime and let me know it.”
Sypkens got the message.
After his disappointing first 20 minutes, Sypkens scored 14 points on 5-for-5 shooting, including four three-pointers and helped key a 14-2 Aggie run that put UC Davis up 42-29 with 14:39 left in the game.
“I think I got my point across,” Stewart said. “It was not an eloquent speech.”
Despite pulling within one early in the second half, the Highlanders would never take the lead and trailed by as many as 25. Part of the Aggies’ success was Harden’s defense of the Highlanders’ Kyle Austin, who entered the game averaging 18.3 points per.
“Joe told me [Austin] wasn’t going to go off tonight,” Calegari said. “Our game plan was to get the ball out of [Austin’s] hands.”
Stewart said the original game plan was to double-team Austin more often. That changed with Harden’s defense.
“Joe’s such a fierce competitor and he relishes those assignments,” Stewart said. “He was relentless.”
With Harden blanketing him, Austin shot just 3-of-14 from the field, finishing with eight points and 10 rebounds.
Payne scored game-high 19 points and Calegari added 18 of his own.
UC Davis will now travel to play Cal State Northridge on Thursday before ending the season at Cal State Fullerton two nights later.
RICHARD PROCTER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.