Nearly 30 miles from Hollywood, Brynton Lemar followed the same script he used in the Big West Conference basketball semifinals to put UC Davis into the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
Lemar scored nine of his game-high 20 points in the final 3:56 to lead the second-seeded Aggies to a 50-47 victory over top-seeded UC Irvine in the Big West championship Saturday night in front of 5,085 at Honda Center.
UC Davis (22-12) won its first postseason tournament since joining Division I for the 2004-05 season.
Lemar duplicated his heroics from Friday, when he scored nine of his game-high 23 points during overtime of the Aggies’ 66-64 win over third-seeded Cal State Fullerton. But the senior guard displayed his most dramatic moment against Irvine (21-14) with about 13 seconds to play.
Irvine’s Ioannis Dimakopoulos made a layup to narrow the Aggies’ lead to 46-44 with 39.9 seconds remaining. Then after breaking a token full-court press, Lemar dribbled at the point for about 20 seconds while holding a conversation with the player guarding him – Irvine’s Luke Nelson, the Big West’s player of the year.
“I told him, ‘I worked too hard for this. I was not going to let this slip out,’ ” Lemar said. “He said, ‘All right, let’s see it.’ I took it as a challenge, and I love challenges.”
Lemar then accelerated, received a screen from J.T. Adenrele and drove the lane for a layup. The Anteaters’ Brandon Smith smacked the ball against the backboard on its downward flight and was called for goaltending, extending UC Davis’ lead to 48-44 with 13.1 seconds to go.
“I’m not going to back down to nobody,” Lemar said. “I don’t care who you are.”
That basket culminated the Aggies’ surge from a 42-42 tie in the final 2:44, a spurt aided by turnovers. A traveling violation against Smith led to Lemar’s driving layup with 2:12 left.
Nelson followed by missing a 3-pointer. Chima Moneke grabbed the rebound, got fouled by Tommy Rutherford and made both free throws to extend the lead to four points with 1:30 left.
The Anteaters ruined their next possession when Spencer Rivers committed an offensive foul 20 seconds later.
But Nelson replied to Lemar’s dramatic score by making a 3-pointer with 7.3 seconds left that narrowed the deficit to 48-47. However, Lemar’s two free throws with 5.8 seconds enabled UC Davis to make history.
Before Lemar’s late performance, neither team took firm control until the end.
The Aggies exploited the Anteaters’ early tendency toward self-sabotage. Irvine committed five turnovers in the first five minutes, did not score until 6:17 expired and missed 13 of 14 field-goal attempts in the middle of the first half.
As a result, UC Davis built a 7-0 advantage after six minutes and held a 24-16 halftime lead. In the second half, Irvine became a different team.
The Anteaters intensified their defense and rebounding. The Aggies responded by missing nine of their first 10 shots and seeing Irvine move ahead 29-28 with 13:29 to go. Both teams exchanged the lead on the next four possessions before a 6-0 spurt put Irvine ahead 40-35.
Yet during that final 5:55, the Anteaters scored just seven points.
“Before the tournament started – and we’ve been talking about this since the league started – we said that the best defensive team is going to walk away with the biggest prize,” UC Davis coach Jim Les said. “These guys for these three games were dominant on the defensive end.
“We weren’t always pretty offensively, but our defense won us this championship.”
Moneke finished with nine points, seven rebounds and three blocks, and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player to join Lemar on the all-tournament team.
In the women’s final, second-seeded Long Beach State earned the NCAA berth by beating fourth-seeded UC Santa Barbara, 56-55.