Despite clinching the fourth seed and a bye to begin the Big West Conference Tournament, the odds were stacked against the Aggies.
To clinch that fourth seed, UC Davis had to defeat Cal State Fullerton in overtime on the road.
To begin the league tournament, the Aggies had to again beat the Titans, this time without the services of Mark Payne.
After beating Cal State Fullerton in a game that went down to the wire, UC Davis had to play a team it had not beaten all year – No. 1 seed UC Santa Barbara.
The kicker was that they would again have to play sans Payne.
Despite the adversity, the Aggies fought hard and advanced further into the Big West Tournament than they ever had before.
Thursday – UC Davis 68, Cal State Fullerton 65
The Aggies started their tournament with a nail biter.
They were playing Cal State Fullerton for the second straight time. The first went to overtime. The second was undecided until the final seconds.
Things didn’t look good early on as the Titans got out to a quick seven-point lead. After losing Payne, who aggravated an existing shoulder injury, the Aggies fell behind and trailed by eight at the half.
“They hit us in the mouth at the start and we were back on our heels,” said coach Gary Stewart. “We talked at halftime about getting more aggressive. In the second half we played more physically. We were committed to putting the ball in the paint.”
In that second half, junior Joe Harden, who was named to the All-Tournament Team, scored 17 of his 20 points while senior Dominic Calegari scored nine of his 13.
The teams battled back and forth until the very end.
Freshman Julian Welch converted a pair of free throws with half of a second remaining to give the Aggies the edge in the game.
Even though the thrilling victory sent the Aggies into the semi-finals, they didn’t lose sight of their goal.
“I don’t want to sound braggadocios,” Stewart said, “but we didn’t come down here to play in the semi-finals. We came down for a purpose.”
Friday – UC Santa Barbara 76, UC Davis 62
That purpose was to get past the Gauchos and win the conference title.
Unfortunately, UC Davis would come up short in what would be Calegari’s final game as an Aggie.
The big man out of Berkeley, Calif. put the cap on his tremendous five-year career with 13 points, six boards and four assists on 4-of-7 shooting.
A late foul by the Aggies in a game that was already decided allowed Calegari to be subbed out and greeted by the crowd.
“He’s meant so much to our program,” Stewart said. “He’s been such a great representative of not only the program but of college basketball in general. He has the highest character, he’s a team-first player and he brings a hard hat every day. He’s a joy to coach.”
Upon his exit, Calegari shared an embrace with Stewart.
“I just thanked him and told him I appreciated him more than he’ll ever know,” Stewart said. “He’s given everything to the program for five years and he deserved to go out that way.”
MARK LING can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.