Semifinal Heartbreak

ZACK ZOLMER / AGGIE

Fullerton upsets Aggies in Big West tournament

UC Davis men’s basketball, the champions of the Big West Conference in the regular season, fell short of riding the winning momentum to a Big West tournament crown. After a quarterfinals victory over UC Riverside, the UC Davis men’s basketball team was defeated by the Cal State Fullerton Titans, 55-52, in the conference semifinal.

UC Davis was tested in the team’s quarterfinal game against UC Riverside, but prevailed nonetheless. Trailing after the opening ten minutes of the contest, the Aggies exploded for a 14-1 run over the next four minutes of play to go ahead by 10. Instrumental in this first-half effort was sophomore guard Joe Mooney, who scored 12 of his career-high 15 points off the bench in the first half. The Aggies entered the halftime break up 35-24.

It was a different story in the second frame, however, as poor shooting and questionable ball security allowed the Highlanders to chip away at the Aggies’ lead. UC Riverside tied the game at 49 with 6:43 to play.

UC Riverside’s scrappiness was not enough to overcome a timely response from the Aggie starting five. Thanks to a flurry of offensive activity from junior guard TJ Shorts II, senior guard Michael Onyebalu and junior forward AJ John –– all of whom finished with double-figures scoring –– UC Davis capped a 13-5 run and captured a 62-54 lead with just over 90 seconds left in the ballgame.

To the Highlanders’ credit, the men from Riverside showed tremendous reserve in the face of adversity. The eight-point Aggie lead appeared to have all but finished the contest, but the Highlanders hit four threes in the waning moments to make the game breathtakingly close on several occasions.

To keep the Aggies afloat against the unexpected barrage of Riverside triples, it came down to key, crunch-time free throw shooting. Both Onyebalu and Shorts were able to deliver, converting a pair of foul shots each in the final seconds to secure the first round victory.

In this primary matchup, Shorts stuffed the stat sheet with 15 points, seven assists, five rebounds and three steals, living up to the hype as the newly crowned Big West Conference player of the year. But while clutch free throw shooting was paramount to the Aggies’ success in game one, a less satisfactory night at the line quickly became UC Davis’ downfall in game two the following evening.

Cal State Fullerton entered the semifinal matchup against UC Davis having defeated the Aggies in both of the two programs’ regular season meetings, so it clear that the Titans possessed the blueprint necessary to upset the number-one seed in the Big West.

But if the first half was any indication of how this particular meeting between the two teams would go, the Aggies had all signs pointing their way to advance to the conference final game. UC Davis scratched and clawed its way to a 31-25 lead at the break and even opened the second half on a 9-2 run. With just over 14 minutes left, the Aggies were still ahead by 13 points, their largest lead of the evening.

But 14 minutes is often an eternity in basketball. And similar what occured in its quarterfinal contest, UC Davis turned sloppy play and inefficient offense into an opportunity for the opposing team to make a comeback.

Quite simply, the Aggies fell apart in the final 14 minutes of the game. In the contest leading up to that point, UC Davis was shooting a respectable 43 percent from the field and had turned the ball over seven times. But over the remainder of the ballgame, after John nailed a three to put the Aggies up 40-27, UC Davis shot an abysmal 23 percent, making just four of its final 17 attempts. The Aggies also committed five turnovers over that same stretch.

Whether this decline was due to poor shot selection, fatigue or just better defense from the Titans, UC Davis appeared to run out of gas on the offensive end. The defense, on the other hand, remained strong for the Aggies. They held Fullerton scoreless from the field over the final four and a half minutes of the contest, keeping the game close while the Aggies’ scoring struggles continued to the bitter end.

With the Aggies trailing by just one point, junior forward Garrison Goode made a timely play by rebounding Shorts’ contested layup that missed off glass. Goode was immediately fouled as he went up for a putback, giving Goode two free throws and the Aggies to an opportunity to take the lead, or at least tie the game with just eight seconds remaining.

Goode was unable to hit either of his foul shots, causing UC Davis to immediately foul the first Fullerton player to rebound the ball. That player was Arkim Roberston, who now had the chance to put the game on ice with free throws of his own. Robertson sunk the first to put the Titans up 53-51, but could not connect on the second, thus allowing junior guard Siler Schneider to collect the rebound and draw a foul while sprinting to the opposite hoop. Miraculously, the Aggies now had a clear path to extending the contest to overtime, but that was dependent on Schneider connecting on both of the upcoming foul shots to do so.

The starting guard from Kansas rattled home the first shot. The score stood at 53-52 in favor of Fullerton. Everyone in the Honda Center took a breath as Schneider lined up for the all-important second attempt. In one of the most heartbreaking moments of this otherwise improbable season, Schneider’s shot went up –– looking good all the way –– and ultimately rattled in and out, falling into the Titans’ possession. With virtually no time left on the clock, the game was finished.

Fullerton added two free throws at the tail end, but the result did not change. The defending Big West Champion Aggies had fallen 55-52 in the semifinal game to bring their thrilling six-game win streak that had earned them a top seed in the tournament to a screeching halt.

John was the only Aggie who scored in double figures versus the Titans that night, with 13 points on 5-7 shooting –– including three triples. The rest of the team had much more trouble finding the basket. Even the conference’s best player, Shorts, could only muster eight points in the 33 minutes he played, going just 4-14 from the field. This was no doubt an unusual night for UC Davis, but the Titans are a quality team that deserves credit for responding to adversity and completing the three-game sweep of one of the conference’s best teams. They advanced to the Big West final where they defeated UC Irvine by a large margin –– 71-55.  

While UC Davis’ hopes of a repeat NCAA tournament appearance were crushed on Friday night, there remain a multitude of positive takeaways from this season. By virtue of having the best record in the Big West following the completion the regular season, the Aggies have secured a spot in the NCAA’s National Invitation Tournament. While it’s no March Madness, the NIT will give UC Davis men’s basketball another opportunity to compete on a national stage.

But what is especially impressive about this year’s group is the team’s ability to shine in adversity. Losing a proven starter and one of the team’s best players in senior forward Chima Moneke was a major blow. The loss could have completely demoralized this team had it not been for the strong leadership from head coach Jim Les and the team’s core group of veterans.

The Aggies won seven of their final nine games until they fell to Fullerton. The effort from seniors Onyebalu and guard Arell Hennings was instrumental in leading the team in the right direction. John filled the starting role typically reserved for Moneke and became a key contributor. Shorts’ brilliance down the final stretch of the season earned recognition as Big West player of the year. Each Aggie elevated his game his own way when the ship could have easily sunk.

But there still remains the nagging question of what might have been for UC Davis had Moneke never been suspended. The circumstance around his absence is still unclear, but in the wake of this tournament loss, one wonders how much of a difference such a talented player like Moneke would have made –– in the postseason especially.

Moneke, despite appearing in just 21 games this season, still finished fourth in the Big West in both rebounding and points per game (the top three in each category all played in at least 30 games). His ability to produce on both ends of the floor could have easily changed the complexion of so many games, not to mention a contest decided by a mere three points.

For now, though, it appears as if Moneke played his last basketball game as an Aggie back on Feb. 1, and this year’s Aggie team still has a national tournament to play in. And final positive note for the future: The Aggies will be losing just two seniors (outside of Moneke) to graduation this Spring, meaning that next season’s roster will be packed with experienced returning starters as well a heap of transfers and freshman that will be anxious to leave their mark.

UC Davis will battle Utah in the first round of the NIT on March 14. The game is set to tip off at 6 p.m. in Salt Lake City.

 

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org