UC Davis had to adopt its opponent’s personality to survive Thursday’s first round of the Big West Conference men’s basketball tournament.
The top-seeded Aggies needed aggressive, physical defense to rally from an 11-point deficit and earn a 71-67 win against Cal State Northridge at the Honda Center.
UCD (25-5) will face the lowest remaining seed in Friday’s semifinals – either Hawaii or Cal Poly – after the Aggies defused eighth-seeded Northridge’s attempt at an upset.
The Matadors (9-24) forced the Big West’s second-leading offense to miss eight of its first 11 shots in building a 26-15 lead six minutes before halftime.
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Corey Hawkins – the conference’s top scorer and the national leader in three-point percentage – missed both of his attempts beyond the arc, made only one basket and finished the first half with just two points. Josh Ritchart’s 12 points enabled the Aggies to stay within eight at halftime.
For Northridge coach Reggie Theus – who played for and coached the NBA’s Kings – the plan was working perfectly.
“If you stay bodies on bodies with them, they struggle to score,” Theus said about the Aggies. “I think that anyone who drew us in the first game was concerned with what we could do on the court, as we showed in the first half.”
UCD coach Jim Les agreed.
“We knew they were a physical team,” Les said. “With them being the aggressor, being more physical, we were just a step slow. I thought they controlled the tempo.”
Les then devised a solution.
“We challenged our guys at halftime, especially our post players, to set a physical presence for our team,” he said. “Whenever we defend, that flows into the offense.”
As a result, the Aggies forced 12 turnovers in the second half – seven resulting from steals – and used them to score 14 points while making 14 of 21 field-goal attempts.
J.T. Adenrele played the pivotal role in UCD’s recovery. The 6-foot-7 forward grabbed three of his four rebounds and scored nine of his 11 points during a 23-10 surge that turned a 42-31 deficit into a 54-52 lead with 7:07 to play.
“At the start of the second half, we had to come out with a higher intensity, more aggression,” said Adenrele, whose layin culminated the run and gave the Aggies their first lead. “I really tried to make my presence felt, especially on the defensive end.”
Northridge’s Stephan Hicks converted two free throws to tie the score with 6:10 remaining, but Tyler Les, the coach’s son, made a three-point shot 19 seconds later to break the tie.
The Matadors’ Stephen Maxwell drove for a layin while getting fouled to narrow the deficit to 57-56 with 4:35 left. But Maxwell missed the ensuing free throw, and Ritchart responded with another three-pointer 12 seconds later to begin a 10-2 blitz that extended the Aggies’ lead to 67-58 with 2:56 to play.
Northridge drew within 69-65 when Aaron Parks made a three-point shot with 1:12 left, and Maxwell followed by stealing the inbound pass and scoring a layin seven seconds later. Hawkins and Darius Graham then converted a foul shot apiece, but after Parks made two free throws, the Matadors had one more chance.
After a timeout, Taelin Webb inbounded the ball to Landon Drew, whose off-balance shot from three-point range fell out of bounds untouched with 1.9 seconds to go.
“When you make a mistake, they are very good at making you pay for it,” Theus said about the Aggies. “We just didn’t sustain the effort we put in.”
Les, the Aggies’ coach, exploited the lack of depth in Northridge’s depleted oster.
“We talked about this being a 40-minute marathon,” Les said. “With our discipline, energy and depth, we needed to play through the 40 minutes because they’ve got limited numbers. We eventually just wore them down.”
Ritchart finished with 21 points, with Hawkins adding 15 points, three assists and three steals. Parks led the Matadors with 21 points, Maxwell contributed 19 points and Hicks had 15 points and eight rebounds.