“I told this team I couldn’t be more proud of their fight and the battle — they gave themselves a chance to win … down to the last shot.”
UC Davis men’s basketball coach Jim Les was talking about a down-to-wire 61-59 loss to Big West Conference-leading UC Irvine on a rainy Saturday night at The Pavilion.
Trying to go toe-to-toe with the nation’s tallest collegiate roster, these Aggies were long ago height challenged after losing board-sweeping J.T. Adenrele during the summer and 6-foot-9 force Josh Ritchart nine games into the campaign.
It’s taken a reshuffled UCD some time to regain its swerve, but judging from its performance on Saturday — and the fact that it has split its last six Big West outings — is this new-look lineup peaking at the right time?
Put aside Darius Graham’s last-gasp shot — a 3-point miss that could have won the game with three seconds left.
Forget that Corey Hawkins missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with under a minute to go.
Never mind that the Aggies shot 33.9 percent from the field.
If there is such a thing, this was a quality loss. Another building block.
Remember, the Anteaters feature the country’s tallest player in 7-6 Mamadou Ndiaye. The imposing freshman from Senegal has led UCI (16-9, 7-2) to nine wins in its last 11 games, including a 46-44 win over Long Beach State on Jan. 9. In that game, Ndiaye blocked 11 shots — a school and conference record.
He’s averaged 8.6 points, 6.3 rebounds a night and entered Saturday with 81 blocks.
The 290-pound Ndiaye’s crowning glory is how he makes a mess of the paint for opponents at both ends of the floor.
But on this night, there was solid inside play from Clint Bozner and Justin Deuck — a pair of 6-8 Aggie forwards who gave as good as they got.
Ndiaye was held to 10 points, three rebounds and only one blocked shot. He traveled the first two times he moved to the hoop and wound up flailing at Bozner enough that the L.A. Trade Tech junior transfer drew three fouls, scored nine points and grabbed four rebounds.
For good measure, Bozner had a block of his own.
Meanwhile, it was Deuck that forced Ndiaye into the early turnovers and was instrumental in holding the key Anteater without a first-half rebound or block.
“They did a great job,” Les said of his big men who helped the Aggies stay close in the rebounding battle that they lost just 35-29. “Ndiaye is a load in there. He’s a great rim protector, which probably attributed to some of our shooting woes.”
And on a normal night, Ndiaye spends a lot of time having his way down low.
Deuck and Bozner would have none of that. Ndiaye had but one dunk.
“They did a great job battling him all night,” Les added.
When UCD (8-16, 3-6) went ahead 6-4 early in the first period, it would not trail until Ndiaye’s tip made it 55-53 with 6:13 left.
Back and forth it went. Graham’s long drive for a lay-up put the Aggies in front 59-57 at 2:49, but ‘Eater Luke Nelson scored three of UCI’s final four points while the locals couldn’t capitalize on Hawkins’ 1-and-1 or Graham’s attempted heroics at the end.
“Our defense has been markedly better,” Les told The Enterprise afterward. “A couple different bounces … a couple of shots go in that usually go in for us, there’s a different result (Saturday).
“The fight and mindset of our guys going into the game, throughout the game is really, really positive and that’s a great sign that your team is getting better and peaking at the right time.”
Avery Johnson — maybe playing the best defense of the local lot — forced three turnovers, grabbed four boards (two at each end). He helped limit to Will Davis II to six points (the first six Irvine points of the game).
In addition to Ndiaye, three other Anteaters were in double digits, but it was Chris McNealy and Dominique Dunning leading the way with just 11 points each. Aaron Wright added 10.
As good as the Aggie defense seemed, UCI managed to shoot 53.1 percent from the floor. However, UCD forced 15 Anteater turnovers while committing only seven.
The Aggies scored 16 points off those turnovers and were led by All-Big West candidate Hawkins with 19 points.
Hawkins was brilliant in drawing Ndiaye out and twice hit majestic one-handed floaters over the Big Sengalese Swatter.
Hawkins also kept the local fire burning when his twisting scoop shot journeyed through six out-stretched Irvine hands. The ball went in as Hawkins again hit the deck — an improbable shot that tied things at 57-57 with 3:28 remaining.
The UCI victory gives the Anteaters a half-game Big West lead over idle UC Santa Barbara.
Meanwhile, UCD remains tied for seventh in conference thanks to UC Riverside’s Saturday loss to Long Beach State, 88-76, and Cal State Fullerton losing to Cal State Northridge (92-83 in overtime).
Cal Poly was the late game at Hawaii.
Notes: With seven games remaining in the regular season, UCD travels to Fullerton (7-15, 2-6) Thursday. It returns home for a Feb. 20 matchup with Long Beach (10-13, 6-3). … UCI leads the all-time series with the Aggies, 19-12. The Anteaters have won six straight from the locals. … Brynton Lemar scored 11 and dished out three assists for UCD, while Iggy Nujic and Georgi Funtarov each scored five.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-320-4456.