Ailene Voisin

Opinion: UC Davis men’s basketball captured the attention of students on campus

UC Davis coach Jim Les shouts during the first half of his team's NCAA college basketball game against Hawaii in the semifinals of the Big West Conference tournament, Friday, March 13, 2015, in Anaheim.
UC Davis coach Jim Les shouts during the first half of his team's NCAA college basketball game against Hawaii in the semifinals of the Big West Conference tournament, Friday, March 13, 2015, in Anaheim. AP

Their season isn’t over, not officially anyway. As regular season champs of the Big West Conference, the UC Davis Aggies are assured of a berth in the National Invitation Tournament, better known as college basketball’s runner-up trophy.

And the Aggies will show up, suit up, and contribute to their most successful season at the Division I level.

But they wanted so much more. They wanted two more victories, one more game, the opportunity to represent their program in the NCAA Tournament for a first time, perhaps even to shock a higher profile, more established opponent.

Instead, they got heartbreak.

Instead of reaching the finale, they lost in the semis.

Instead of coming up with another of their characteristic rallies, storming to a victory in the end, they faltered at the finish line and absorbed a 65-58 loss to Hawaii on Friday night at the Honda Center.

“It was an extremely emotional locker room,” a subdued Aggies coach Jim Les said afterward. “We don’t feel good about our performance tonight, but because of what they’ve done all year, we’re going to get a chance to play again. The legacy will be when it’s over.”

The memories will include a 25-6 season, a perfect 14-0 mark at the Pavilion, a 14-2 conference record and regular season title. Led by Corey Hawkins, the Big West Player of the Year, the Aggies captured the attention of students on campus, of folks within the community, and were twice featured on ESPN. The team was an anomaly of sorts, a likable group that featured four fifth-year seniors and was coached by a former NBA player-turned-stockbroker who developed the coaching bug while assisting with the departed WNBA Monarchs.

But the ending? That final minute.

No, not a shining moment.

After overcoming a shaky start and 13-point deficit against the deep, athletic Rainbow Warriors, the Aggies kept catching up, tying the game, then failing to score. A missed free throw. A bobbled basketball. A questionable foul. An errant pass.

Finally, after Hawkins erupted with a pair of three-pointers – including one from well beyond NBA range – and Josh Ritchart followed with a triple, and Josh Fox converted two free throws to tie the game at 56-56 with just under two minutes remaining. After Hawaii’s Isaac Fleming hit two from the line, Fox was fouled again, only this time missed both attempts.

The Aggies had one more legitimate shot for the tie, or for the win. Hawkins, of course. It had to be Hawkins. The 6-foot-3 senior raced down the left side, maneuvering for a three, then probed the baseline for an opening. As he drove toward the basket, releasing one of his familiar right-handed floaters, Hawaii’s rangy Aaron Valdes elevated and blocked the shot, effectively ending the game.

“That’s a money shot,” Les said, “and I’ll live and die with that one. Hawaii made a heck of a play. When he (Valdes) blocked it, it was well on its way to the basket. Not to say that it was goaltending. It was an unbelievably athletic play. Down the stretch they just made a few more plays than we did and they deserve to win.”

As Les walked out of the interview room, he was intercepted by UCD athletic director Terry Tumey. The two men shared an embrace and a few words, and then Tumey repeatedly patted his coach on the back.

“This has been a great year, offering a sense of where UC Davis can go,” the AD said earlier. “Jim has built the program the right way. We’ve got great student athletes, great citizens. They performed on the court. they do well in the classroom. And the success we’ve had on the court has really started to resonate. So it’s been a very exciting journey that, quite honestly, bodes well for all of our other sports. As one high-profile sport moves forward, you start seeing other ones more forward, and we’re seeing that. I feel very good what basketball has done.”

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