With an assist from Darius Graham and his other UC Davis men’s basketball teammates, Josh Fox won both the battle and the war Thursday night against UC Riverside at the Pavilion.
Graham made the game-winning three-pointer and had a career-high 21 points, Fox added 20 points, three rebounds, three steals and three assists and Neal Monson had a critical blocked shot in the final seconds as the Aggies (7-10, 2-2) prevailed 58-55 over the Highlanders (10-11, 1-4) for their 10th consecutive home-court conference win in front of an announced attendance of 2,247.
The 6-foot-6 Fox, a senior forward, played as a freshman at UC Riverside and also was teammates with Highlanders’ star Taylor Johns at Sacred Heart Cathedral High School in San Francisco, where they teamed to lead the Fighting Irish to the CIF state Division III championship game as seniors.
While the 6-7 Johns stayed in Riverside and is now the school’s career blocked shots leader and No. 4 career rebounder, Fox returned home to Daly City, and played a season at City College of San Francisco before transferring to UCD.
They went mano a mano Thursday night and the savvy Fox was the clear-cut winner.
Johns, averaging 14 points and eight rebounds coming into the game, played just 15 minutes before he fouled out with 8:27 to go. Johns finished with eight points and five rebounds.
“I try to treat it like another game but in all honesty, it’s means a lot to me, especially starting off my career there,” Fox said. “Seeing those similar faces I get that extra juice, a little more fiery.
“It’s nice to beat them – it feels really good – since me and Johns are from the same hometown and I know his family. I can rub it in his face a little bit. It’s all good fun. We’re really close. We’re like brothers.”
Graham, the Aggies’ junior point guard, also seems to get that extra juice when playing the Highlanders.
The former Sacramento High standout had the winning shot that enabled the Aggies to slip past UC Riverside at the Pavilion last season and claim their first Big West Conference championship.
Graham’s three-pointer Thursday night from the left wing put UCD ahead 57-55 with 50 seconds remaining, then he added a free throw with three seconds to go for the final margin. In between UC Riverside missed five shots, including Monson’s block of Thomas Gentry near the basket with seven seconds.
“It’s made for TV, it’s good for that drama and stuff,” Graham said. “Coach was talking to me at a shootaround before the game that he was watching last year’s game at Riverside and how I hit that three.
“My response was, hopefully, we don’t make it that close. But I guess it happens like that.”
There were 11 lead changes and the game was tied nine times. Neither team led by more than eight points.
The game was the Aggies’ second consecutive nail-biter. They beat Cal State Northridge 63-62 Jan. 14 at the Pavilion on Siler Schneider’s three-pointer with 1.7 seconds to play.
“We’re going to be in a lot of close, grind it out games,” said UCD coach Jim Les. “I love the resolve, resiliency and toughness these guys are showing down the stretch. And it’s multiple guys stepping up and making plays.
“Tonight I loved the response to a negative play. We had some turnovers, guys missed some plays and didn’t hang their heads and didn’t multiply the mistake.”
While the Aggies shot only 43.5 percent from the field (they were a season-best 13 of 16 from the foul line), they held the Highlanders to 41.5 shooting.
Junior guard Brynton Lemar led the way defensively by playing 38 minutes and limiting UC Riverside scoring leader Jaylen Bland to 12 points. He was averaging 17.3 coming in. Bland also entered the game as the nation’s most prolific Division I three-point scorer and was the Big West leader last season, too.
He made two of eight from beyond the arc.
“I really trusted (Brynton) to shadow and chase Bland around,” Les said. “I thought Bland late had a couple of decent looks but because Brynton wore him down, I thought it affected his shooting, which was big.”
UCD went 14-0 last season at the Pavilion and is now 19-2 over the last two years and 10-0 against Big West teams.
“You got to get these wins here and try to pick some up on the road,” Graham said. “Protect the home and protect the Pavilion, especially when you have a crowd like (Thursday night).”
The Aggies now head to Hawaii, to play a Rainbow Warriors (15-2, 4-0) team on Saturday that is off to its best start in 14 years.
“For the reward for winning I say we’ll take a little trip to Hawaii,” Les said smiling. “Hey, it’s a great opportunity. I like the way this team is playing, the way they are defending.”