UC Davis battled hard to earn two close wins this week. The team traveled down to Southern California to face off against Big West Conference rivals UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton.
Thursday’s game against UC Riverside was an unusually low-scoring game. The Aggies managed to pull away with a 59-52 victory over the Highlanders, but UC Davis did not display the offensive dominance Aggie fans are accustomed to.
To their credit, the Ags were without the Big West’s leading scorer, sophomore Corey Hawkins. In Hawkins’ absence, junior Ryan Sypkens picked up the torch and led the team in scoring, managing 16 points in the game.
The Highlanders allowed Sypkens to take 13 attempts from beyond the arc and he converted on four of them. That brought his three-point season tally to a grand total of 95.
Meanwhile, sophomore J.T. Adenrele continued to dominate the middle. He used his size to earn his fourth career double-double, scoring 13 points and snagging 10 rebounds.
“J.T. played like a man. It is fun to see him become a more confident player. When he drew attention, I thought he made some unbelievable interior passes to Howley and Josh [Ritchart],” said head coach Jim Les. “He is not being stopped by one guy, he is drawing two and three defenders and finding the open man.”
UC Davis obliterated UC Riverside’s defense in the first half. The Aggies went on a 16-6 run during the first half to give them a 15-point advantage at the break.
The game had every chance of turning into a blowout victory for the Ags but the Highlanders hit the court with a new energy after halftime. They were able to put together a run that allowed them to get within reach of the Aggies. Fortunately, UC Davis still had some gas in the tank and they were able to hold off the UC Riverside offense, which scored five of the last seven points to close the game.
The game against the Highlanders was not the best scoring effort of the season, but the Aggies still managed to out-rebound the Highlanders 36-33. UC Davis also blocked five shots, tallied 14 assists and earned a steal during the game.
The win over Riverside moved UC Davis to 8-7 in Big West play and helped them maintain the sixth-place ranking.
Saturday’s contest against Cal State Fullerton was much more intense. The Aggies welcomed Hawkins back into the lineup and he wasted no time returning to business.
In fact, UC Davis seemed utterly unstoppable in the first half. They exploded out of the gate with Hawkins earning 10 points and Adenrele scoring 13. Adenrele only needed a half to earn the fifth double-double of his career and the Aggies entered the locker room with a 40-28 lead.
Cal State Fullerton’s senior night was headed toward disaster until the Titan senior Kwame Vaughn found his stride in the second half. Suddenly, the Aggies’ lead was gone and it was a tie game with eight minutes left to play.
It was a true back-and-forth for the remainder of the game. There were 17 lead changes in the game, and it seemed like the last team to have possession would win the game.
The Titans also adopted an interesting offensive style to close the game. They posted their point guard at the three-spot and he would stand there dribbling for the majority of the possession. With a few seconds left on the shot clock, they would try to punch the ball to Vaughn and let him take a stab at a fadeaway jumper.
Unfortunately, it did not work out for them. With 7.1 seconds left in the game, the Titans were trailing by one and had every chance to make the final field goal and pull away with the win.
The Titans’ Jared Brandon decided to drive the ball to the basket to make the buzzer-beating layup but UC Davis junior Josh Ritchart drew a charge and the points were negated due to the offensive charge. In addition to preventing a Fullerton victory, the charge gave UC Davis the ball to finish the game.
The Titans dragged the game along, trying to get chances at another possession by fouling the Aggies, but UC Davis’ shooters were sharp from the free-throw line and in the end the Titans had to settle for a 71-68 loss at home.
The game tested the mettle of the Aggies’ defense and they withstood the challenge. It was another big road win for UC Davis and it advanced them to 9-7 in conference play. UC Davis fans can forget the nightmares of last year’s 3-13 season. This team is headed to the conference tournament, and they certainly have the talent to win.
“I could not be more proud of these guys for gutting one out. At the eight-minute mark it was a tie game, everyone stepped up and dug deep to make plays,” Les said. “To make this kind of surge [toward] the end of the game, this team is growing up before our eyes.”
The Aggies’ next game is against Long Beach State at home this Thursday. The 8 p.m. contest will be nationally televised on ESPN2 and fans are encouraged to come show their support.
KIM CARR can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.