Josh Fox couldn’t let his boyhood friend and former teammates have the last word.
As an area native, Darius Graham understood the game’s significance.
Collectively, the UC Davis players weren’t about to lose in front of amped home crowd of 2,511 students and supporters Thursday night at the Pavilion.
So even on a rare poor shooting night from one of the nation’s best shooting teams, the Aggies rallied late to beat UC Riverside 61-59 to make it official in the school’s best season of Division I basketball.
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The Aggies (23-5, 13-2) become only the third team in Big West history to go from worst to first in one year.
In winning, UC Davis secured the outright Big West Conference championship and will be top seeded for next week’s conference tournament in Anaheim. They will open on Thursday against eighth-place Cal State Northridge at the Honda Center.
The Aggies also remained unbeaten at home this season and can finish 14-0 on Saturday when they play second place UC Irvine on senior night.
UCD trailed the determined Highlanders (14-15, 7-8) by as many as 16 points in the first half and 13 in the second and didn’t take their first lead until one minute 18 seconds remained.
Darius Graham, who finished with six points, hit a three-pointer as the shot clock wound down to put the Aggies ahead 55-54.
Taylor Johns’ layup put UC Riverside back up 56-55 with 38 seconds before Fox, Graham and Corey Hawkins combined for five free throws to counteract a dunk by Steven Thornton with five seconds remaining.
Then the celebration was on as fans stormed the court and the players embraced, posed for pictures and took their turns cutting down the net.
“This might be our worst game of the year,” said smiling UC Davis coach Jim Les. “I think they were so amped up, and so excited to cross the finish line. ... But good teams find a way. This team has shown character all year.”
Graham, a sophomore from Sacramento High School, is the team’s point guard but is rarely looked on to score. Yet when he couldn’t find an open teammate, he let the ball fly.
“The clock was winding down so, I just said, let’s see what happens?” Graham said. “It’s just my will to win, whether it be a shot, a defensive play, a pass. This is especially big for me being a local dude and being at UC Davis through the good times and bad.”
Last year UCD won nine games and failed to make the Big West tournament, finishing ninth.
While Hawkins led the way with 21 points, six rebounds and three steals, Fox came up big with 14 points – 12 in the second half – and six rebounds. The junior reserve forward made 10 of 14 from the foul line.
Fox played as a freshman at UC Riverside before transferring last season to City College of San Francisco. On Thursday, he found himself battling his former Sacred Heart Cathedral High School teammate Taylor Johns, who led the Highlanders with 15 points and eight rebounds.
“We love each other, and battling with him was lots of fun,” Fox said. “I tried not to make this game this personal, but to win the championship and to do it against Riverside, there is no greater feeling.”
UC Davis entered the game as the No. 1 D-I team in the country in three-point shooting percentage (45.7) and No. 4 in field goal percentage (50.0).
But UC Riverside’s active defense held the Aggies’ shooting to 37.2 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from three-point range.