There weren’t many bright spots as the UC Davis men’s basketball team lost its home opener to Northern Arizona on Sunday afternoon.
But the play of guard Ryan Sypkens, in his first meaningful game at The Pavilion since suffering a season-ending knee injury last fall, would have to be one of them.
In the 85-82 loss, Sypkens turned in a solid individual effort on the defensive end of the floor, grabbing three rebounds and giving opposing guards little room to breathe, let alone score, and connected on nine of his 13 shot attempts — including 7 of 11 from beyond the 3-point arc — for 25 points.
“I’m just going to shoot when I’m open,” the junior said.
Sypkens and transfer Cory Hawkins, who had a team-high 30 points, carried the Aggies offensively for much of the game, combining to score 36 of the team’s 42 first-half points, and both hit big shots during a late run that came up just short.
UCD, however, looked sluggish and inattentive on defense in the early stages of the game and trailed by as many as 15 in the first half, before starting to wake up after the break. The Aggies outscored the Lumberjacks, 40-34, in the last 20 minutes and had a chance to tie it on a 3-point attempt by Josh Ritchart with four seconds to go.
But Ritchart, who had four points and four rebounds, misfired from the top of the circle as the buzzer sounded.
The shot was set up by an 8-4 run put together by Sypkens and Hawkins over the final three minutes. Hawkins muscled his way inside for a lay-up, then hit Sypkens on a cross-court pass. Sypkens wasted no time in getting off a trey that cut the deficit to 81-78 with 1:53 to play.
Hawkins followed it up with another hard-fought bucket inside and added two free throws to counter four Lumberjack points from the stripe, setting the stage for Ritchart’s final heave.
The late spurt would have been unnecessary if the Aggies hadn’t given up 51 points in the first half, including 16 second-chance points.
“I think we made some plays in the second half where we got a little more physical,” second-year UCD head coach Jim Les told The Enterprise. “But what’s going to determine our ability to move forward is attention to detail defensively and discipline and physicality, and I thought we lacked that (overall).
“And give Northern Arizona credit. They were in such a good rhythm it was tough to slow them down.”
The Aggies trailed 51-42 at halftime and would have been even farther behind had Sypkens not made a quartet of threes — all of which came in the game’s first eight minutes.
“Sype did a nice job,” Les said. “He’s a threat from anywhere on the floor. He gets into a rhythm shooting the ball. I thought a lot of guys did a good job finding him, screening for him, and getting him some openings. And when he drove the ball, I thought he did some nice things, dropping balls off when he drew some attention.”
Aggie fans are used to seeing Sypkens shoot the ball well. As a sophomore in 2010-11, he hit a team-high 66 long balls and led the Big West in 3-point percentage (.420). Last season, Sypkens had a combined 13 treys in his first three games, before suffering the knee injury in the fourth.
However, what they might not have expected was his improved defense and strength. While recovering, he intensified his workout regimen and added muscle, giving him the power to more effectively body up opposing guards on the perimeter.
“I couldn’t run really, so I think the thing I did most was lift a lot of weights and I got a lot stronger,” Sypkens said. “I think on the defensive end and (with) rebounding, that’s helped me.”
During his time away, he was also able to obtain a medical redshirt, giving him eligibility to return next season. With Hawkins and center J.T. Adenrele, who had seven points and six rebounds against the Lumberjacks, set to return for two more seasons and Ritchart and sixth man Tyler Les for one, the Aggies have a solid core to build around.
But the team wants to win now and, in order to do that, it is going to have to intensify its effort on the defensive end of the floor.
“We scored 82 points,” Sypkens said. “That’s way more than enough points to win. They had 51 points in the first half. That’s really our problem. We’ve got to clean that up. That’s on pace for 102 points and that’s ridiculous.”
They will have a chance to get it right when they travel to Sacramento State for the annual Causeway Classic matchup tonight. Tip-off is at 7:35 p.m.
Notes: Sharpshooter Tyler Les didn’t attempt a shot on Sunday, but coach Les wasn’t overly concerned, saying that because the team has so many shooters capable of getting hot, the number of shots taken by each player is bound to fluctuate from night to night. … Senior Ryan Howley added 10 points and nine rebounds and classmate Paolo Mancasola had seven assists.
— Reach Will Bellamy at email@example.com