Sometimes an exit becomes an entrance.
UC Davis’ Mark Payne, Todd Lowenthal and Joe Harden didn’t end their illustrious Aggie careers with the kind of season they were hoping for. After all, this one wasn’t capped with a trip to the Big West tournament as the team struggled to a 10-20 overall record.
But all three graduating seniors, who left their marks in the Aggie record books, are now looking forward to life after college basketball.
“It will be a new and exciting time,” Payne said.
The next step for both Harden and Payne will be to sign with an agent and begin pursuing a professional basketball career, either here in the United States or overseas. Lowenthal remains undecided.
“I still have to figure out my options, whether I’ll keep playing or start working,” Lowenthal said.
Whatever the future holds, UCD head coach Gary Stewart said the competitiveness and desire all three players exhibited in their time with the Aggies will be of immense benefit in whatever path they choose.
UCD fans won’t soon forget Payne, a 6-foot-8 point guard, who was named the Big West Freshman of the Year in 2008.
That season, he averaged 9.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists while playing an Aggie-high 33.4 minutes per game and exhibiting a toughness he would need for the rest of his career as injuries were a constant battle, though one Payne often won.
In 2008-09, he earned an all-conference second team nod after dishing out a Big West-leading 5.1 assists per game (34th in the nation). It was that season that Stewart realized he had a top-flight distributer to run his team. Payne also continued to prove a great rebounder (5.8 per game) but scoring (10.4 ppg) was an area where he knew he could improve.
And he did, pushing his scoring average to 15.4 points in his junior season, despite missing eight games with an assortment of injuries.
“Injuries are very frustrating,” Payne said. “Those would be the low points for me.”
But his hard work at becoming a better scorer continued to overshadow his health problems, and Payne put in a career-high 15.5 ppg this past season. He missed three games because of a foot injury — though like in 2009-10, he came back quicker than expected — but still managed to surpass the 1,000 career points mark.
That scoring ability was on full display in the most memorable game of the season, a 108-107 double-overtime victory over UC Irvine on Jan. 29 at The Pavilion. He exploded for 32 points, the final two coming off an arcing full-court pass from junior Eddie Miller that Payne laid in for the victory as time expired.
“He and Eddie will be forever linked in Aggie basketball lore,” Stewart said. “That was a special play.”
While fighting until the season’s final week to get into the Big West Tournament, there wasn’t much time to think about the fact that Payne’s career was winding down. He is just now coming to that realization, but remains hopeful that his basketball-playing days are not over.
“It didn’t hit me (in the last game). Now it is starting to sink in, that I’m done and I won’t have practice on Monday,” Payne said last week. “I’m going to keep playing basketball (in the U.S.) or I’ll go overseas and play for a few years.”
France, Germany or Spain are all options if nothing works out stateside.
“(It) would be a great situation. (But) it will definitely be hard and a big culture change,” Payne said.
Stewart has complete confidence in Payne’s ability to succeed at the next level. The coach added that Payne’s greatest accomplishment at UCD was his ability to leave the program in a better place than he found it.
“Mark has been a tremendous, tremendous person to be around,” Stewart said. “You’re lucky to coach 30 years and get one person like him. He’s come to realize his potential, how good he can be. He will continue to get better and better.”
The Harden way
Payne’s playing partner since elementary school and through high school when they played together at St. Mary’s in Stockton, Harden’s first colligate experience was at Notre Dame.
But after realizing he was at his best when Payne was setting him up, he transferred to UCD and redshirted the 2007-08 season.
When he finally got to play for the Aggies, Harden was the model of consistency. After averaging 14.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore, he maintained those numbers for the rest of his career on his way to surpassing the 1,000-point mark in his three-year UCD career.
His 14.9 ppg were second on the team to Payne, and Stewart not only loved his ability to put the ball in the basket, but also his willingness to put his body on the floor.
“When you had a game, you knew he was going to play and he was going to play as hard as he humanly possibly could,” Stewart said. “Joe is the only person to win the (Best Hustle Player in the Big West) award for two straight years. He went to the floor for loose balls (and) he (took) charges.”
Harden says he really enjoyed his time in Davis, but now he hopes to join Payne in continuing to play the game he loves.
“I’ve stayed in one place since I came here, it’s going to be hard to leave,” Harden said. “(But) I’m going to pursue an overseas career and go full speed.”
Lowenthal, high in character
Another player who transferred (from Hawaii) and redshirted for the 2007-08 season, Lowenthal was the kind of player every coach wants, the type who will do whatever the team needs from him.
Though he never put up big scoring numbers, that wasn’t his job for the Aggies. And despite being listed in the media guide as a 6-3 point guard, Lowenthal made himself into one of the team’s best rebounders.
After pulling down 4.5 boards a night in 2009-10, Lowenthal averaged 5.3 rebounds a game as a senior, second on the team behind Harden.
“He’s a hard-hat guy,” Stewart said. “He’s a person who doesn’t take days off. He’s a guy who makes anything he’s involved in better.
“Playing the point guard position and having multiple double-digit rebound games speaks to his effort.”
In 2008-09, the popular player was named to the Big West Conference’s All-Academic team.
Between his education and his time on the court, Lowenthal believes his experience at UC Davis will serve him well as he moves into the next stage of his life:
“It’s offered a lot of challenges, balancing athletics and academics, traveling and the commitment.”
And for Aggies fans, watching these three play offered a lot of thrills.
— Reach Will Bellamy at email@example.com. Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com