Until this season, Corey Hawkins, Josh Ritchart, Tyler Les and Avery Johnson had dealt with much adversity at UC Davis.
So in a ground-breaking season for the UC Davis program, the four fifth-year seniors and their teammates weren’t about to take the pedal off the floor in the regular-season finale against UC Irvine at the Pavilion.
It didn’t matter that they had clinched the Big West Conference title two nights earlier in a taut, physically draining game against UC Riverside.
With the gifted Hawkins leading the way with a dominating 30-point performance, the Aggies defeated the Anteaters 80-61 in an intense, chippy and physical game against the team picked to finish No. 1 in the conference in the preseason poll.
An announced 4,345 fans – the biggest non-television crowd of the season – watched the Aggies (24-5, 14-2) finish 14-0 at the Pavilion, the first time a UCD men’s team has gone undefeated at home since the 1997 Division II national championship team went 17-0.
UC Davis coach Jim Les said there were no plans to rest starters before Thursday’s Big West playoff opener at noon against No. 8 Cal State Northridge at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
“I was worried about the hangover from (Thursday’s game), Les said. “But they responded in a huge way. … We play to win.”
Hawkins was 9 of 16 from the field and 11 of 11 from the foul line. It was the 38th time in his Aggies career that Hawkins has finished with 20 or more points. Among those watching him slice and dice the Anteaters on senior night was his father, Hersey, a former NBA standout.
“It was an array of emotions,” said Corey Hawkins, who also had four rebounds and three assists. “I was excited, nervous, sad and happy. I tried to keep it as composed as possible, and I think that carried us.”
Johnson added 13 points and sophomore Brynton Lemar 10 as the Aggies shot 48.0 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from three-point range while holding UC Irvine (18-12, 11-5) to 35.5 percent shooting. Former Sacramento High star Will Davis II led UC Irvine with 12 points with seven rebounds, and 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye added 11 points and eight rebounds.
Before the game, UCD paid tribute to Hawkins, Les, Ritchart and Johnson and their families with a moving video.
“The game was special in so many respects,” Jim Les said. “It was, one, the home-court record, and, two, continuing to build our résumé. Three, is just building momentum heading into next week.
“And then there was the emotional aspect of these four seniors and what they have done for the program and making sure we send them out appropriately.”
This is the first winning season at UCD for the senior foursome.
“When we decided to come here, this is what we all envisioned and what we wanted to do,” said the 6-9 Ritchart, who had six points and was among those defending the towering Ndiaye, 7-2 Ioannis Dimakopoulos and the 6-8 Davis. “But all of us persevered, and to be where we are now makes it that much sweeter.”
Tyler Les said the tribute was a nice touch, but he liked how the Aggies got down to business once it was over.
“The biggest (emotion) I felt was just happy,” the younger Les said. “To be leaving with this group of guys, this coaching staff, these fans, this university, this is really a perfect ending.”
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