Ailene Voisin

Upstart Aggies make dramatic NCAA Tournament debut: ‘We fear no one’

In front of a national television audience and a largely welcoming Midwestern crowd Wednesday, the UC Davis Aggies stepped onto basketball’s national stage, and except for fumbling a few lines, followed their script.

They defend like fiends, rely on each other, secure their victories in the closing seconds. They play their roles, and, man, do they like their drama.

The program’s NCAA Tournament debut finally ended with a kiss – a tight 67-63 victory over North Carolina Central – but only after seniors Lawrence White and Brynton Lemar converted 3 of 4 free throws.

The sound of those Aggies exhaling? There was some of that, too. Coach Jim Les’ wife, Jodi, became separated from the Davis contingent in the postgame chaos and found herself stranded in a nearby tunnel. “I can’t breathe,” she joked, tapping her chest.

Wait till her husband starts prepping his team for the next opponent: Kansas. Yes, that Kansas. The top-seeded Jayhawks already are resting at the Midwest Region in Tulsa, Okla., plotting for the upstarts/unknowns from Northern California, the ones who work the farm, study like scholars, and in contrast to most of their tournament peers, stay in school long enough to earn degrees.

But, hey, given their season of historic accomplishments, you think the Aggies care that no one knows who they are? That a few locals asked where Davis was located? That Chima Moneke was offended when a reporter in the postgame interview session started by asking, “How do you pronounce your name? Is it ‘KEE-muh’ or CHEE-muh?’ 

The Aggies have accomplished too much to be offended by perceived slights. Big West, Midwest. Les’ team takes the global approach. Remember your passports and prepare for all the elements. After finishing 11-0 at the Pavilion, these same Aggies, remember, recovered from a blistering defeat at UC Irvine, survived the conference tournament semifinal against Cal State Fullerton because of Moneke’s putback, and rallied in the closing minutes to slap a nasty comeback on the Anteaters in the Big West final.

“We respect Kansas, but we fear no one,” Lemar said quietly afterward.

In other words, Les already is in their ears, spinning an absolutely daunting statistic – No. 1 seeds are 128-0 all-time against No. 16-seeded opponents – with a beauty of his own: His 13th-seeded Bradley Braves upset the No. 4 Jayhawks in the 2006 West Regional – on March 17, 2006, exactly 11 years ago Friday.

The “rematch” will be televised live on TNT, but in the meantime, the Aggies plan to turn down the sound, continue doing their homework, and occasionally pause long enough to appreciate Wednesday’s effort against NCCU.

The Eagles did not go away quietly, and almost never went away at all. Aware that man-to-man defenses are used almost exclusively in the Big West, Eagles coach LeVelle Moton went smart and went zone. His traps, full-court pressure, and particularly 1-3-1 zone, forced Moneke away from the basket and caused the Aggies to throw errant passes and become tentative instead of attack.

After a quick start, with eight points from the springy Moneke, Davis endured a 5:55 scoring drought that turned an early lead into a 21-21 tussle. Game on. Or as Moneke might suggest, given his extensive Australian roots, scrum on.

For the duration of the game, both teams made runs, grabbed leads, appeared on the verge of pulling away. And each time, the opponent responded. The Eagles’ Kyle Benton, the only Californian on their roster, muscled his way to 13 points and 12 rebounds. Had he received more help from his perimeter shooters (19.2 percent from 3-point range) – and they had good looks – the outcome may have been different.

But after Les urged his players to attack the zone with aggressiveness, skip passes and spaces along the baseline, the Aggies more closely resembled the Aggies. “We all know our roles,” White said afterward.

Siler Schneider beat the defense with a nifty drive, Mikey Henn sank two important jumpers, and J.T. Adenrele took two deep breaths and hit two crucial free throws. Darius Graham’s only points – a 3-pointer from the right side – stalled an Eagles rally. Moneke, as usual, was part acrobat part tight end in the second half, extending for tough rebounds, contesting shots around the basket, scoring on jump hooks, stepback jumpers, layups.

In the end, that closing sequence, it was Lemar ensuring the Aggies maintained their poise with his steady demeanor, and White hitting open shots and thieving in the passing lanes – both doing those things they do.

“Our guys grew up as little hoopers dreaming about playing and having this opportunity,” Les said. “So it’s special to be here (University of Dayton Arena). And we’re just going to continue to fight, to try to keep this story going. When that ball goes up Friday, I’m not going to be thinking about what ... we’re going to be playing basketball, competing at basketball.”

The Aggies’ next big date awaits. Eleven years ago Friday. Undoubtedly, Les will include that little gem in his pregame tale.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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