UC Davis opened Big West Conference play with two heartbreaking losses, followed by a rough showing at The Pavilion.
The Aggies fell to Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside by a total of three points, 65-64 and 60-58, respectively.
The bumps and bruises of learning a new coach’s system are expected early on, as evidenced by the loss to UC Irvine on Saturday night 70-55. Slow starts were recurring problems for the Aggies in these games.
With the losses, UC Davis fell to 1-14 overall and 0-3 in conference play.
Dec. 29 — Cal State Fullerton 65, UC Davis 64
UC Davis came out flat-footed, as Cal State Fullerton engineered an early 11-2 lead within the first five minutes of the game. The Aggies trailed by as many as 16 points, allowing the Titans to shoot 57.7 percent in the first half.
But UC Davis had a different energy in the second frame, and surged its way back into the game.
“In the second half we took away transition baskets, we got big stops, we got first rebounds, we executed well and got good shots offensively, and we didn’t turn it over,” said first-year coach Jim Les. “That translated into giving ourselves a chance to win.”
Sophomore Josh Ritchart tied a career high with five three-pointers, and senior Eddie Miller’s jumper inside the paint with just over two minutes to go tied the game 59-59.
Unfortunately Kwame Vaughn, who led the Titans with 17 points, hit his free throws down the stretch, and Cal State Fullerton was able to eke out the win.
It was the third time this season and sixth time in his career that Ritchart had made five three-pointers in a game. Big-man Alex Tiffin collected a career-high 10 rebounds to go along with six points.
Thursday — UC Riverside 60, UC Davis 58
The recurring theme for the Aggies this season is slow starts, as UC Riverside opened on a 9-0 run, and UC Davis didn’t hit a field goal until four and a half minutes into the game.
However, the Aggies used a 14-3 surge to come back and go ahead when freshman guard Tyrell Corbin converted a three-point play to give Davis a 20-18 late in the first half.
UC Davis took a two-point cushion into halftime, but came out cold in the second half, and the Highlanders used a 13-0 run to go back up 40-32.
The Aggies climbed back into it, and after a blocked shot had the ball down by a bucket with 10 seconds left.
Miller drove the lane and made a layup with three seconds left, driving the crowd wild.
But the officials waved off the shot, calling an offensive charge on Miller, negating what could have been a game-winning three-point play.
“We continue to battle, we continue to get better, which is what I’ve asked them to do,” Les said. “We’re making those strides. Now we’ve got to learn and figure out a way to finish games. We didn’t rebound and there were some loose balls we didn’t come up with down the stretch. That is the difference in a game.”
Sophomore guard Tyler Les scored 12 points, Ryan Howley and Tyrell Corbin all finished with 12 points apiece, while Ritchart added 10.
Saturday — UC Irvine 70, UC Davis 55
In what seemed like déjà vu, UC Irvine ran its way to a 17-5 advantage after just five minutes of play.
Down 24-14, the Aggies once again clawed their way back, reeling off 10 straight points and tying it at 24 when Josh Ritchart converted a three-point play.
“We locked in defensively and got stops,” Les said of the Aggies’ first-half rally. “It’s no coincidence when you get stops and first rebounds that your offense flows a little bit easier.”
Senior guard Eddie Miller grabbed 10 rebounds in the first-half alone and finished with 13 in the game, an Aggie season-high.
“I’ve been struggling a little offensively, so I’ve been trying to focus on some other aspects of the game to try and help the team out and still contribute,” Miller said.
The second half had a bad feel when Ritchart picked up his fourth foul just 17 seconds into the period. UC Davis’ leading scorer then had to sit, and the Aggies didn’t score for almost six minutes into the half.
The slow start led to bad transition defense and made it easy for the Anteaters to run away with the game.
“Give the credit to Irvine,” Les said. “I thought they took it to us from the tip. They had us back on our heels to start the game and we never quite recovered.”
Harrison DuPont led Davis with 11 points, and the Aggies made just five three-pointers, three below their league-leading average.
To counter the slow starts, Les has used many different lineups, as evidenced by the fact that guard Ryan Howley is the only player to have started every game this season.
Les also said that junior guard Ryan Sypkens had successful surgery on his injured knee, and although he is out for the remainder of this season, Les will be looking forward to having him for two seasons after this.
The Aggies will continue conference play as they hit the road for three straight games, beginning with Long Beach State on Thursday.
RUSSELL EISENMAN can be reached at email@example.com.