Ailene Voisin

UC Davis Aggies take historic first step into NCAA Tournament

UC Davis celebrates its first NCAA basketball tournament bid

UC Davis players and fans celebrate at the Graduate in Davis on Sunday, March 12, 2017, after learning they will be traveling to Dayton, Ohio to take on North Carolina Central University on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in a play-in game for the NCAA
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UC Davis players and fans celebrate at the Graduate in Davis on Sunday, March 12, 2017, after learning they will be traveling to Dayton, Ohio to take on North Carolina Central University on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in a play-in game for the NCAA

They sang, they celebrated, they pinched themselves. Well into the wee hours Sunday, the UC Davis Aggies talked and texted and replayed those magical final moments in Anaheim, of all places.

In the Southern California city that almost stole the Kings, the favored UC Irvine Anteaters had their own pocket picked. Ahead by five points. Four minutes remaining. The NCAA bid within their grasp. But not this time, either.

The resilient and more experienced Aggies responded with the plays that win games, secure conference championships, create indelible memories and clinch historic NCAA Tournament bids.

Remember their names and their faces, because this only happens once. Darius Graham. Brynton Lemar. Chima Moneke. Coach Jim Les, the former Kings guard and onetime Monarchs assistant who returned to Northern California to help grow the region’s college basketball landscape.

The 16th-seeded Aggies, who reached the Big Dance for the first time as a Division I program with their 50-47 squeaker over the Anteaters, will play the other college basketball team from Durham, N.C. – North Carolina Central, not perennial powerhouse Duke – Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. The winner travels to Tulsa, Okla., for a weekend matchup with another familiar and formidable foe, the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks.

But right now? After the comeback in Honda Center? The Aggies could be slotted in Pluto and be thrilled with the accommodations.

“When we got back to the hotel late Saturday night, my wife Jodi and I just sat there, laughing,” Les said during the tournament selection party Sunday afternoon at The Grad, a pub near campus. “Every time I get asked why I came back to Sacramento, I say the same thing. One of the main reasons was to try to make UC Davis and college basketball relevant. Basketball has been so good to me, and I wanted these kids, who are such a great group, to experience playing in big games, winning a championship, pulling together and getting to the tournament.”

These Aggies just keep receiving and delivering gifts. They were paired with Sacramento State in December in the first college game held in Golden 1 Center – a venue Kings president Chris Granger envisions as a permanent home to men’s and women’s college basketball. At the Pavilion, the Aggies’ home court, they went 11-0, outlasting a pesky Hawaii squad in the conference home finale. Lemar and Moneke were named to the Big West All-Conference squad. Graham was “Hustler of the Year.”

Then came the potentially fatal blow, the 30-point thumping by these same Anteaters in the conference finale on March 11. That was followed by the emotional recovery that persisted throughout the Big West tournament and was evident by Moneke’s last-second, game-winning putback to beat Cal State Fullerton in the semifinals, and finally, even more notable by the combination of late free throws, timely field goals and stifling defense in Saturday’s rematch with Irvine.

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Several hours and a short flight later, as the NCAA Tournament brackets were announced Sunday afternoon, the mood inside the local Aggies hangout was one of dazed delight. Forget about Pluto or Mars. Though many UCD partisans were pulling for another upset, say, a berth in the bracket at Golden 1, they would have flown to the moon and soaked up the setting.

First-year football coach Dan Hawkins, a UCD grad who took the microphone and led cheers at several of the basketball games, squeezed into a booth near the side. Former women’s basketball coach Sandy Simpson, who guided the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance, slid onto a bench alongside other Aggies officials. Les, his hoarse voice reduced to a croak at times, worked the room the way he works a sideline – he is too intense to stay still.

The players sat on chairs directly in front of the largest television, anxiously awaiting word of their next destination. When UC Davis popped on the screen, they whooped and sang, and, yes, some of them danced.

Lemar, the versatile guard from San Diego, afterward joked about breaking ranks with his relatives who attended San Diego State and feeling vindicated about his decision to enroll at Davis. Roseville’s J.T. Adenrele was in a state of disbelief; he underwent ACL surgeries on both knees and remains a major contributor. Graham, the former Sacramento High standout, offered details about his last-second deflection in Saturday’s victory. His father, Sebastian, a former Sacramento corrections officer, is a diehard Kings fan like his son and couldn’t ignore the irony.

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Graham knocked the Anteaters’ inbound pass away with nine-tenths of a second remaining, while Robert Horry grabbed the Vlade Divac tapback and hit the last-second three in the epic Kings-Lakers series in 2002. “Right?” the elder Graham said, with a grin. “But Darius is a pioneer. When coach Les called, I told my son, ‘You can go to Davis and make history.’ 

The extent of the benefits, in fact, are yet to be determined. Potential recruits suddenly are returning texts and making inquiries. The distance on the Causeway between Davis and Sacramento appears to shrink. The region’s college basketball fans have double the pleasure – the first and second rounds featuring UCLA and Oregon at Golden 1 will be preceded by the Aggies and their date in Dayton.

“We’re obviously excited about the opportunity to compete,” said Athletic Director Kevin Blue, “but for the university, the visibility that comes with being in this event is immeasurable.”

Immeasurable, and with a uniquely dramatic Aggies flair. This, too, is etched in Aggies hoops history: When Moneke yanked off his warmups just prior to tip-off Saturday, he discovered his jersey was missing. Assistant coach Kevin Nosek was shown on the telecast racing into the locker room, where he dug into the junior’s backpack and found the shirt stashed under a Spanish textbook.

“Coach Les said, ‘Chima, where is your jersey?’ and coach Nosek just took off, started sprinting,” Moneke said. “Twenty seconds later, he comes back with it.”

With a laugh, the Canberra, Australia, native added, “And, yes, it was under a Spanish book. We are trying to study as much as possible, which isn’t easy amid everything that’s going on.”

North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton talks about making the NCAA tournament and preparing for the first game in Dayton, Ohio, where his Eagles will face UC Davis, which will be playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time.

Blair Kerkhoff and Vahe Gregorian dicussed the NCAA Tournament bracket during a Facebook Live broadcast on Sunday, March 12, 2017.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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