It was Saturday, Jan. 18.
Cal State Fullerton was in town for a Big West game and the lowly Titans were licking their chops …
The UC Davis men were 2-11 in their previous 13 games and were allowing almost 90 points a game.
Bleak was the outlook. Never mind that the Aggies (8-16) had excuses — big man Josh Ritchart had gone down after nine games and the locals never had the defensive and board-sweeping skills of previously injured J.T. Adenrele.
The guys were foundering. Meanwhile, coach Jim Les was trying to rebuild the engine. Those excuses didn’t wash. If he could get the ignition to turn over, there were still roads to travel. Defense would be the fuel.
In that season-altering Jan. 18 game, Les shook up the lineup.
Little-used Justin Dueck and Olivier-Paul Betu got starts that night. For sophomore Dueck, it was his first game-opening nod in college.
The new-look Aggies played solid defense — an almost unseen treat for those 2,216 UCD fans at The Pavilion — and the locals won, 69-61.
“Defense has been an area that we needed to address,” Les explained after that kick-start victory. “If I’m going to hold true to my word and say defense is important — and that’s what we’re stressing — then I have to back it up and put the guys in the game who are doing that in practice.”
Since, post player Dueck has been on every starting lineup card.
And Clint Bozner had been a reliable off-the-bench man in the middle.
Including that January win, UCD has gone 4-3 after the shakeup. The Aggies are now 3-7 in conference, still fighting for their playoff life after Thursday night’s stumble against the same Titans.
But with its renewed vigor, UCD almost caught first-place UC Irvine and its 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye napping last Saturday, before losing, 61-59.
I had a chance to chat this week with Dueck and Bozner about the team’s new defensive philosophy…
“It’s something a couple of guys started buying into and from there it was like a fire,” the 6-foot-8 Dueck told me. “Other guys were catching on and we’re all playing and focused on defense right now.”
Since the middle of January, UCD is holding opponents to a 73-point average — almost 16 a game fewer than the first 18 games of the season.
Bozner, who until his senior season at Villa Park High was a point guard, scored nine points against UCI and combined with Dueck to hold the mammoth Ndiaye to three rebounds and only one block. Eight of the Anteater’s 10 points came in the first half.
So solid was the Aggie duo’s performance that the Senegal native turned the ball over on his first three possessions, got in foul trouble and didn’t resemble the freshman who came into the contest with 81 blocks (including 11 in one game a few weeks back).
Bozner says the new UCD defense forces opponents to make less-patient decisions, which often leads to mistakes. Bozner has been asked to pick up cutters in the paint — and Les wants him and Dueck to be more physical once the enemy advances.
Bozner (listed at 6-8 and 250 pounds) says that’s fine by him.
“My game is a more physical style of play anyway … getting into guys,” the Los Angeles Trade Tech transfer explained. “We’re getting more aggressive. We’re doing good things defensively.”
Leland High (San Jose) grad Dueck isn’t being counted on to add scoring (he has but one basket in 16 games played). Guys like Corey Hawkins, Georgi Funtarov and Ryan Sypkens handle that department, so what Dueck is being asked is to jam up the middle and give as good as he gets.
So far, it’s working.
“If we limit teams to under 60 points, with our shooters, we’ll put ourselves in places to win,” Dueck told me.
So has his post play changed any since getting the call?
“Not really. I’m living out God’s story in my life right now,” Dueck explained. “Whatever comes each day, I know it’s something God’s given me the opportunity to do.”
As much stock as Dueck places in his faith, it’s apparent Les has similar faith in Dueck these days.
While I Have You Here: About that 1-2 “punch” against tree-topping Ndiaye on Saturday, I wondered what was going through the minds of Bozner and Dueck while crunching bodies in the paint that night.
“It was one of the few times I ever felt short,” Dueck said with a grin. “I’ve been tall all the way through, from preschool. And that’s been great for me because I haven’t had that one, big growth spurt that people complain about when their bodies are hurting.”
Meanwhile, Bozner did have that growth spurt, going from a prep 6-4 guard before an injury sidelined him, enabling him to work out while he grew in weight and height.
“Had I ever felt short?” Bozner repeated my question. “Not like with that guy (Ndiaye). He was very imposing. I tried to go up and dunk on him, but he got me.”
After Ndiaye blocked Bozner’s hopeful jam, the Aggie collected the loose ball and laid it back in against the back-on-his-heels Ndiaye.
“You can’t really practice to play against someone like that. It was fun.”
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-320-4456.