Corey Hawkins gave a performance worthy of the national stage against Long Beach State on Thursday night.
Unfortunately for Hawkins, the rest of the UC Davis men’s basketball team and the crowd of 5,670 at The Pavilion, the performance was cut short by a leg cramp suffered in the final minutes.
The Aggies played on, but lost, 77-76, to the 49ers after Ryan Howley had his potential game-winning 3-pointer ricochet out of the basket.
The game was a frustrating one for UCD as it not only ended in heartbreaking fashion, but it did so in front of a sold-out crowd and viewers across the country, who tuned into ESPN2 to see the Aggies (14-15, 9-8 in Big West Conference play) and the 49ers (18-11, 14-3) go head-to-head. It was the first-ever contest to be televised nationally from The Pavilion.
And even in a loss, UCD gave those viewers a game to remember.
Behind Hawkins, who had a game-high 34 points and seven rebounds before keeling over at midcourt in pain and checking out of the game with 1:46 left to play, the Aggies shot 50.9 percent from the field against Long Beach — the Big West’s first-place team — and came back after being down by as many as 13 points in the first half to take several sizeable leads down the stretch.
“I told (the players) after the game (that) there couldn’t be a group of guys that I’m more proud of for what they showed (Thursday),” said UCD head coach Jim Les. “(For) dealing with the adversity of getting behind early and coming back and dealing with the adversity of Corey going down.
“I thought the atmosphere was electric. I thought we were energized by our students and our fans. This is a taste of what college basketball is and should be and what we want it to be going forward here at UC Davis.”
Howley and Ryan Sypkens each added 12 points for the Aggies and, after Hawkins went down, stepped up to give the locals a shot at a last-second victory.
Sypkens hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the final two minutes to cut the 49ers’ lead to one. Then, after UCD forced a shot clock violation on the opposite end of the floor, Howley slipped through the Long Beach State defense and found himself open along the baseline and beyond the arc. He caught a pass and squared up before releasing a shot that rattled around inside the rim and then popped out as the buzzer sounded.
“We had a great shot,” Sypkens said. “Halfway down and it just happened to pop out, unfortunately.”
In a way, the tough ending was fitting as it was a night of bad luck for the Aggies.
Emerging center J.T. Adenrele got into foul trouble early and the locals struggled to protect the glass while going without his sturdy presence in the middle for long stretches of the game. The 49ers capitalized on his absence by outrebounding UCD, 42-25, and getting 25 second-chance points on 19 offensive boards.
“We gave up way too many offensive rebounds,” Howley said. “In a game like this, against a team like Long Beach, you can’t afford to have that many.”
The Aggies also appeared flustered at the start of the game by the massive, blue-and-gold-clad crowd, which packed even the seldom-used bleachers way up near the rafters of The Pavilion.
Long Beach State surged out to a 24-11 lead before Hawkins got into a rhythm and began knocking down a series of off-balance jumpers and brilliant layups. Following his lead, UCD clambered back into the game and trailed only 35-34 at the half.
The Aggies surged at the start of the second half, getting out to a 43-36 advantage in the first three minutes behind the play of Howley, who threw down a massive dunk on a baseline drive, and Hawkins, who continued to score in an almost machine-like fashion.
But the 49ers battled back and the two teams traded leads down the stretch. UCD got out to another seven-point lead with 7:20 to go but, as before, Long Beach quickly closed the gap.
In fact, the 49ers took their largest lead of the half at 75-70, Adenrele fouled out and Hawkins went down all in the span of a few moments, setting the stage for the heroics of Sypkens and Howley.
For the Aggies, Tyler Les added six points and Adenrele had five points and three rebounds.
UCD now looks ahead to its regular-season finale against UC Irvine on Saturday. The 7 p.m. tip-off at The Pavilion follows the Aggie women’s 4:45 matchup against Pacific.
“We usually have a 24-hour rule, 24 hours to celebrate or to be disappointed,” Jim Les said. “I cut that down to 12 because Irvine’s coming up pretty quick on Saturday.”
Notes: James Ennis was dominant for the 49ers, posting 24 points and 14 rebounds. Long Beach State’s Tony Freeland chipped in 21 points. … Sacramento Kings standouts DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson watched the game from courtside seats under one of the baskets.
— Reach Will Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org