The UC Davis men’s basketball team came into their first game against UC Riverside hopeful to score a win after a disappointing Southern California road trip.
The Aggies started the game off hot, getting confident play from freshman forward Georgi Funtarov and junior forward Iggy Nujic. Within the first eight minutes, Nujic scored eight points, draining two three pointers and grabbing two rebounds.
Junior guard Corey Hawkins, however, was the headlining act of the night. Hawkins, with the game still close, hit two straight threes toward the end of the first half to bring the Aggies up by 13 points.
Hawkins continued to play well, scoring 14 points in the first half, before being hit in the eye at the beginning of the second half, forcing him to the sideline for the rest of the game.
“It’s a 10 millimeter cut on my eye,” Hawkins said. “It was bleeding out of my eye and it was pretty bad.”
When Hawkins went out of the game with 14:28 left in the game, the Aggies were up by 18 points. Within 4:12, that lead had been cut to 2 points.
The Aggies ultimately lost the game by 12 points, creating a 30 point swing within the 14 minutes that Hawkins sat on the bench.
While Hawkins injury clearly had a negative impact on the Aggies’ offense, as he is their leading scorer, it was the defense that came up short in the second half.
The Aggies allowed UC Riverside to double the amount of points they put up in the first half, scoring 54 points on 70.8 percent shooting. Forward Taylor Johns, who paced the Highlanders with 22 points, scored 16 of his points in the second half while only missing one of his eight shots. Guard Sam Finley also scored 18 of his 19 points in the second half while adding four rebounds.
“We allowed a visiting team to come in and shoot 70 percent in the second half,” said coach Jim Les. “That’s little or no attention to detail and energy and focus on the defensive end.”
The Aggies did see promising performances from several of their young players, including a career-high 14 points and three rebounds for Funtarov and 10 points and a career-high nine rebounds for Nujic. UC Davis simply could not close out the game without their star player.
After the poor performance against UC Riverside, coach Les opted for starting two players who have seldom played this season, sophomore forward Justin Dueck and sophomore guard Olivier-Paul Betu.
“We did some tough defensive drills yesterday [in practice], and I thought Justin and OB [Betu] really embraced it and really played well in practice,” coach Les said. “They earned it and this team and coaching staff has confidence in those guys.”
The Aggies did not play well on offense in the first half against the Titans. They were led by Hawkins who scored eight points, but only shot 36 percent from the field as a team.
Nujic missed all but one of his six shots, scoring just two points and grabbing no rebounds while senior guard Ryan Sypkens missed both of his attempts.
Still, the Aggies found themselves down by only six points at half thanks to stellar defense. The team forced the Titans into 11 turnovers, including two steals by Betu. UC Davis, on the other hand, only lost the ball five times in the half.
Once again, the game proved to be a tale of two halves as the Aggies scored 46 points and made over 60 percent of their shots in the second period. Hawkins was outstanding yet again as he scored 14 points while making four of his seven attempts.
Sypkens was the important story of the second half as he scored all 15 of his points while sinking three clutch shots from beyond the arc. He also came up with a steal and a key block on a seemingly easy transition bucket.
“I just don’t think we were hitting shots in the first half,” Hawkins said. “We had some good looks, but we can go cold in the first half and get hot any second. We have some of the best shooters I’ve ever seen.”
The Aggies still struggled on the boards against the Titans, getting outrebounded by 13 in the game. Forward Steve McClellan grabbed 13 rebounds for Cal State Fullerton, while the Aggies were led in rebounding by Dueck, Hawkins and junior guard Avery Johnson who each had five. UC Davis is certainly being hurt by the absence of senior forward Josh Ritchart, who leaves the team with only four forwards.
The Aggies, while overjoyed with the hard fought win, are already looking forward to the final game of their homestand against Hawai’i on Jan. 23.