Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Aggies use one-two punch, Josh Ritchart and Tyler Les, to KO Northridge, advance to Big West semifinals

Cal State Northridge's Landon Drew, is double-teamed by UC Davis’ Tyler Les, left, and Corey Hawkins in the second half of their Big West tournament game.
Cal State Northridge's Landon Drew, is double-teamed by UC Davis’ Tyler Les, left, and Corey Hawkins in the second half of their Big West tournament game. The Associated Press

Josh Ritchart and Tyler Les have been roommates and friends for the better part of five years. The UC Davis seniors are so tight, so bonded, the only thing resembling friction occurs during their frequent and informal shooting duels.

At 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, Ritchart has an obvious advantage in size, strength, and the ability to shoot over tall defenders. But in terms of hang time? Or the number of seconds the ball remains in the air before beginning its descent? The edge belongs to the 6-2, 185-pound Les.

“Our (duels) are pretty close,” said Ritchart, grinning after the Aggies edged Cal State Northridge 71-67 on Thursday afternoon in a Big West Conference tournament quarterfinal. “I’d say it’s probably about 50-50.”

Fortunately for the top-seeded Aggies, their one-two long-distance punch – coach Jim Les won’t quibble with the order – chose the perfect moment Thursday to show off their touch. Late in the second half. The score tied 60-60. The undermanned Matadors refusing to wilt.

Then, bang, bang. That fast, that furious. Before the Matadors could wave their red capes, Tyler Les launched one of his high-arching threes from the left side, from well beyond the NBA line. Ritchart followed with a three-pointer from the top of the circle, giving the Aggies their biggest lead – and certainly their first real jolt of confidence – with 4:20 remaining.

While UCD advances to Friday night’s 6:30 p.m. semifinal, Northridge coach Reggie Theus didn’t take it easy on old friend Jim Les, his coaching counterpart and fellow former King. The Matadors, who suited only eight players because of an ongoing investigation into possible academic irregularities, controlled the first half by attacking inside, forcing turnovers, and smothering Corey Hawkins, the Big West Player of the Year.

UCD’s deficit grew to 11 points before the Aggies began to, well, resemble the Aggies, the Big West regular-season champs who are known for their poise and experience, their exceptional depth, and their genuine affinity for one another; the only number that ever seems to matter is the final score.

“They know who they are and they play to their strengths,” Theus praised afterward, lingering in the hallway. “They don’t try to do things they can’t. And, as you know, every coach loves guys who can shoot.”

Avery Johnson started the Aggies’ rally with two free throws. J.T. Adrenele completed a three-point play and spun underneath for a nifty layup. Hawkins deflected balls and stole passes, and offensively, began to break free, often behind screens, almost as often taking his defender off the dribble and converting his usual array of floaters, midrange jumpers and driving layups. Les hit that NBA-type three. And Ritchart, who kept UCD close in the opening half with 12 points, continued stretching the floor with another three from the right corner and opening lanes for his teammates to maneuver.

The Auburn native finished with a game-high 21 points and converted six 5 of 6 attempts from beyond the arc. During the regular season, he averaged 21.5 points and 4.5 rebounds, was named all-league second team for the first time, and led the Big West with 227 three-pointers.

While his roommate, Les, shoots for the stars, Ritchart’s release appears almost effortless. His brother, Andrew, who coaches at Forest Lake Christian High School, says he somewhat resembles Dirk Nowitzki, the lanky Dallas Mavericks’ superstar.

Nowitzki, of course, developed into a superb rebounder and effective post scorer, elements Jim Les has urged Ritchart to incorporate into his game, particularly during his fifth and final season. A year ago, the All-Big West second-team selection was on the sideline alongside several of his ailing teammates, forced to redshirt because of a stress fracture in his left leg. The ensuing recovery period was devoted to maintaining flexibility while gaining strength; in his five years at UCD, Ritchart has added approximately 30 pounds and become a more established physical presence.

“He’s a tough cover on the offensive end and he becomes a playmaker on the defensive end,” Les said. “A great senior stepping up tonight.”

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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