Ailene Voisin

Bruised but still buzzing, UC Davis goes back to the farm and back to the future

'They've raised the bar': Postgame interview with UC Davis coach, players after loss to Kansas

The UC Davis men's basketball team's historic season ended with a 100-62 loss to top-seed Kansas in the NCAA Tournament on Friday. Aggies coach Jim Les and players Brynton Lemar and Chima Moneke reflect on the game, the experience and their season
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The UC Davis men's basketball team's historic season ended with a 100-62 loss to top-seed Kansas in the NCAA Tournament on Friday. Aggies coach Jim Les and players Brynton Lemar and Chima Moneke reflect on the game, the experience and their season

In the end, after the heavily favored Kansas Jayhawks chased them back to the farm, the UC Davis Aggies were left with 13 glorious minutes inside the BOK Center, one stirring victory in their NCAA Tournament debut, and enough stirring memories to wipe away the tears.

Top-seeded Kansas did what it was supposed to do. That final score – the 100-62 thumping by the Jayhawks – will leave a few bruises on the 16th-seeded Aggies, though not for long.

This season was too historic and too much damn fun. How many folks can locate Davis without consulting a map? How many basketball fans became enamored of Chima Moneke, the junior who has lived on five continents and will return for his senior season? Who doesn’t appreciate the fact that, while college basketball’s prestigious postseason tournament returned to Sacramento and the new Golden 1 Center, one of the area’s teams made a first appearance on the national stage?

These Aggies might not be sexy, as coach Jim Les often says, but their recent exploits attracted the attention of at least one celebrity. Yes, that was actor Rob Lowe sitting in the Aggies section Friday night, with a UC Davis baseball cap on his head, cheering for the team that, after those first glorious 13 minutes (including TV timeouts, etc.), had absolutely zero chance of becoming the first No. 16 seed to eliminate the No.1 club. The record is intact, extended with Friday night’s outcome to 129-0.

For a moment there, though, before Les received a technical for a regrettable if surprisingly mild discussion with a referee, the Aggies were in the game. Siler Schneider was hitting 3-pointers, Moneke was scoring inside, J.T. Adenrele was muscling for stickbacks.

But then the Jayhawks sprinted ahead with 20 quick points, and the Aggies weren’t heard from again. Check back next season, though. That buzz figures to stick around. Les – whose transformation of the once-dormant UC Davis program surely will be noticed by officials at universities with larger athletic budgets and more established basketball roots – is digging in. The fact his wife, Jodi, is a Realtor in Placer County and his youngest daughter is a sophomore at Granite Bay High, undoubtedly aid the Aggies’ cause.

Asked if he had any interest in exploring vacancies in Washington, Indiana or nearby Cal, Les immediately slowed, if not completely killed, any speculation that he might have itchy feet.

“I want to continue to grow what we’ve built here,” he said while standing alone outside the locker room. “Davis is a special place. I’ve got great support above me, from (athletic director) Kevin Blue, and I’ve had phone conversations with our new chancellor, Gary May, and I’m very impressed with their visions. We want to establish a level of consistency with our excellence.”

Les, the former Kings guard and one-time Monarchs assistant, stubbornly and seriously believes he has found a formula that works. He’ll continue exploiting his extensive NBA connections and recruiting wonky types who also happen to be better athletes than the Aggies norm of the not-too-distant past.

The reason Lowe was in the building? Everybody loves a story. And none of this is even possible if the Aggies aren’t in the tournament. According to UC Davis officials, one of the university’s vice presidents was seated near the actor Thursday on a flight from Denver to Tulsa. The two chatted, exchanged phone numbers, and when Lowe was offered tickets to Friday’s game, he accepted and showed up with his son.

He even stuck around as the deficit ballooned, with Les clearing his bench with just over four minutes to go. As his starters walked off the court, their intense, engaging coach greeted each of them with a hug and a handshake, holding guard Darius Graham close in a particularly lengthy embrace.

“That’s my guy,” said Graham, the former Sac High standout and one of four senior starters. “It’s just been amazing to be a part of this. Remember, we won seven games my freshman year. Who would have thought I would go out after playing Kansas in the NCAA Tournament?”

These Aggies were 11-0 in the Pavilion, resilient enough to recover from a bruising 30-point loss at UC Irvine in the regular-season conference finale, and brash enough to secure the automatic NCAA Tournament bid with comeback victories over Cal State Fullerton and Irvine in the Big West tourney.

The good times rolled right along in Dayton, Ohio, where they scored another first – a victory over North Carolina Central in the play-in game. Against the Eagles, these were the typical Aggies, overcoming turnovers, leaning on the springy, powerful Moneke for another double-double, converting crucial free throws in the final minute, refusing to go away.

But now it’s back to the farm, and back to the future. Graham, Brynton Lemar and Lawrence White will earn their degrees and pursue pro basketball careers, anywhere around the globe that presents an opportunity. Adenrele graduates as well, six years and two torn ACLs later, uncertain of his career path.

“I don’t want tonight and the outcome and the score to take away from what this group did,” Les added. “They put UC Davis basketball and UC Davis on the map, nationally, internationally. They were just a special group.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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