UC Davis survived a self-destructive beginning and a dramatic finish late Friday night to move within one victory of its first appearance ever in the NCAA tournament.
Chima Moneke's basket as time expired in overtime gave the second-seeded Aggies a 66-64 victory over Cal State Fullerton in the semifinals of the Big West Conference men's basketball tournament at the Honda Center.
The win put Davis (21-12) into tonight's 8:30 p.m. championship game against top-seeded UC Irvine, the regular-season champion. The matchup comes one week after the Anteaters routed the Aggies in Irvine by 30 points to claim first place.
"To go to March Madness, I want to beat the best," Moneke said. "I don't want no asterisk. We'll bring it, for sure."
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Should they win, the Aggies would earn their first post-season tournament championship since joining the NCAA's Division I for the 2004-05 season.
"I'm a senior and I want this," guard Brynton Lemar said. "I want this for our team. We deserve it."
Leading Irvine is senior guard Luke Nelson, the Big West's player of the year who missed the first 18 games of the season because of a hamstring injury. Nelson entered the tournament averaging 17.3 points.
Joining Nelson are senior guard Jaron Martin, 6-foot-10 sophomore Jonathan Galloway -- named the Big West's defensive player of the year -- and a defense that led the conference in fewest points allowed per game (64.8), lowest field-goal percentage (.381) and lowest three-point percentage (.310).
"They play tendencies really well," Lemar said. "We know that tomorrow is going to be a game of who has the best defense."
For nearly the first eight minutes Friday night, the Aggies had neither defense nor offense, as third-seeded Fullerton (17-14) built a 9-1 advantage. Davis missed its first eight shots from the floor and failed to secure an offensive rebound until J.T. Adenrele's follow shot 7:11 into the game.
"We were just playing fast and rushed and trying to make plays off of one pass," Davis coach Jim Les said. "That's not really when we're most effective and most efficient. I think the guys were so amped up. They wanted to win the game in the first couple of minutes and to do it by taking a lot of contested jump shots."
But Les attributed the Aggies' recovery to the play of Adenrele and Lawrence White.
"J.T. and Lawrence hit the offensive boards," Les said. "Both those guys on both ends of the floor ignited us with their energy, enthusiasm and second-effort plays. It's amazing how infectious that energy is."
Davis held a 32-23 lead 5:38 into the second half before the Titans rallied to move ahead, 55-53, with 42.9 seconds left in the half. But Lemar's driving lay-in tied the score with 28.6 seconds remaining.
"They were playing all guards and I saw the defense sag off a little bit," Lemar said. "I knew we were in the bonus so I was just trying to be aggressive, make good plays and have the mentality not to lose."
Lemar took charge in overtime by scoring nine of his game-high 23 points. His final pair came on a fadeaway jumper that forced a 64-64 tie with 41.1 seconds to go in overtime.
On Fullerton's ensuing possession, Tre' Coggins -- the Big West's leading scorer -- missed a three-point shot with 15 seconds left, and the Aggies' Siler Schneider grabbed the rebound. Then came the game's ultimate dramatic moment.
Schneider missed his own three-point attempt with two seconds left but Moneke grabbed the rebound and made the shot that sent Davis into the tournament final. In doing so, the 6-foot-6 forward exploited an opponents' mental mistake.
"I knew when Siler shot it, there was time left on the clock and I saw Khalil Ahmad," Moneke said of the 6-foot-4 Titan. "He didn't box out. He was just watching the shot. I realized that if (Schneider) missed, I would get the offensive rebound. It was really surprising but I tried to stay cool. I knew there was enough time to get it up and in."
Moneke finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks. Coggins led the Titans with 22 points.