Men’s basketball wins against UC Riverside, captures Big West Conference Championship
The magic number was one for the UC Davis men’s basketball team coming into their March 5 game against UC Riverside. Needing just one victory over their last two games to win the Big West Conference regular season title, UC Davis men’s basketball was able tie up their championship early.
The Aggies entered the game ranked first in Big West and faced off against a middle of the pack UC Riverside, who was 7-7 in conference play. The game pitted Big West leading scorer, senior guard Corey Hawkins, up against Highlanders junior forward Taylor Johns who averages over 16 points and seven rebounds per game.
The game started off slowly for the Aggies, as the team quickly fell behind 5-12 due to six points from Johns. UC Davis turned the ball over six times in the first nine minutes while registering zero assists, leading to a 16 point deficit. Still, the Aggies were able to systematically cut the deficit down while also forcing Johns into foul trouble. At halftime, UC Davis found itself behind by just five points while the Highlanders’ star sat on the bench with three fouls.
Despite a strong finish to the first half, the Aggies came out flat to begin the second. The team managed to quell its turnover issues, turning it over just twice in the first eight minutes, but missed a number of threes and allowed their opponent to climb back up to a 13 point lead. During that stretch, the Highlanders dominated UC Davis on the offensive boards and hit several shots from beyond the arc.
The game began to turn in the Aggies direction with under nine minutes left in the game, as UC Davis scored eight straight to bring them within three. The comeback seemed to be on, but quickly fell apart as the Highlanders resumed a comfortable seven point lead. The Aggies, however, had one last run in them that was kick-started by an and-one from junior forward Josh Fox to bring them to down four.
After two free throws by Hawkins brought the Aggies to a two point deficit, sophomore guard Darius Graham made the play of the night by hitting an NBA-range three with the time expiring to grab the first Aggie lead of the game. The lead switched hands twice more, but the Aggies were able to secure the victory on free throws by Fox, Graham, and Hawkins.
Graham was ecstatic after the game, excited to have been able to make a big play for his team. “It feels really good. I just want to be able to make the winning play, whether it be a defensive stop, a good pass or a rebound. I just want to be able to do that for my team. These guys deserve it the most and I just want to win for them.”
With his big three, Graham did more than win the game for the Aggies. This victory propels UC Davis to a Big West Conference Championship just a year after finishing last in the conference. The Aggies ceremonially cut down the nets after the game, a few players shedding quiet tears, as the team was swarmed by fans asking for autographs.
Head coach Jim Les was excited about the win, but disappointed with how the team played. “I feel like practicing at midnight [after the game], but I don’t think that’s legal. This may have been our worst game of the year, but they were so amped up and so excited to cross the finish line, sometimes the last few steps are the toughest. Good teams find a way, this team has shown character all year and they couldn’t have shown more character than the last four or five minutes of this game.”
The team, and hundreds of their adoring fans, celebrated for quite some time after the game, but every player seemed to understand that this was simply a step towards a bigger goal.
“It [the Big West Tournament] is the next step that we want to succeed in,” said junior forward J.T. Adenrele. “Win the tournament, get an NCAA bid, and then go to March Madness. That is what we want to be a part of. The road doesn’t stop here for us, we just want to keep going and win as much as possible, set as many records as possible and impress as many people as we can.”
The UC Davis men’s basketball team has already impressed a lot of people this year, but now they must look forward to one more regular season game against UC Irvine before taking on the Big West Conference Tournament from March 12 to 14. With a No. 1 seed wrapped up, the Aggies are ready to succeed in their next big challenge.
Photos by Jian Gelvezon.