Contending for the title in a conference where losing would potentially drop a program to a third or even fourth seed in tournament play, there could not have been more of an electric finish to the Big West season for frontrunning UC Irvine men’s basketball (16-16, 11-5) and UC Davis (21-9, 12-4) Saturday night at the Bren Events Center.
The gladiator match went into two overtime periods as the ‘Eaters and Aggies found themselves knotted up 13 times and jockeyed for the lead in 14 different occurrences. While UCI shot 50 percent from the field and 70.6 from the charity stripe, Davis also hit an efficient 46.3 percent from the floor and 65.4 percent of their free throws.
With neither team giving way, the game simply became a matter of minute errors and missed opportunities — of which the Aggies would use to grit out a 90-84 decision to take home the cup. Despite the loss, UCI head coach Russell Turner could not have asked for a better effort from his team.
“I’m proud of them,” coach Turner said. “We had a couple of opportunities to finish.”
Sophomore Evan Leonard paced the ‘Eaters with a game-high 22 points on 9-15 shooting. Fellow starting second year man Eyassu Worku added 13 points, connecting on 50 percent of his shots.
Junior guard TJ Shorts II’s 21 points led Davis. Shorts II came up with a number of crucial shots and lay-ins and also finished with seven rebounds and five assists. Junior forward A.J. John’s 20 points, hitting 6 of his 10 triples, the last of which gave the Aggies the final edge to win the game.
“Credit to Davis, they played great,” coach Turner said. “I thought especially T.J. Shorts and A.J. John … they were terrific for them, along with some other guys … those guys stepped up in the biggest moments and that’s what sports is about … is that guys have opportunities to do what Davis did today.”
Both teams played their hearts out, in every sense of the cliché, trading big basket after big basket and were seemingly competing to see which play would end up on the night’s hypothetical highlight reel. The cheering of 5,000 fans that packed the house served as the judges of each crucial play.
The first major candidate emerged with just 1:38 remaining in regulation when Shorts II came away with a steal, stopping and popping in a deuce for the go ahead basket to make it 69-67.
UCI battled back, drawing a foul on a rebound attempt that sent sophomore forward John Edgar Jr. to the line. For the game tying free throws, the first bobbled on the rim a bit before trickling in; the second, nothing but the bottle of the net.
A little under two minutes left in overtime number one, Worku got the crowd buzzing, crossing left to right, faking a drive, stepping back and dropping Shorts II before connecting on a triple that brought UCI up two, 76-74.
On the ‘Eaters’ next possession, Davis hounded UCI defensively and forced them to operate with less than five seconds left on the shot clock. Leonard, however, made something of nothing and launched a trey that flirted on the rim but dropped in. The Cerritos, Calif. native had a chance to ice the game with two free throws, but uncharacteristically missed both.
The ‘Eaters left 41 seconds and a five-point deficit for the Aggies to operate against but seeing how the Aggies have operated under clutch conditions on the year, the odds were not completely out of the Davis’ hands.
As he had done all night, Jones leaked out beyond the arc and swished in another triple to cut UCI’s lead to three. Shorts II then stole the ball on UCI’s inbound attempt and drew a foul. Shorts II, who has already picked up two notable game winners with a heave from half court against Long Beach and a coast-to-coast lay-in against Riverside, easily knocked down both shots to send the game into a second overtime.
Kicking off another airtight five minutes, rose and lit up for his fifth triple to push Davis back out front. Redshirt junior Elston Jones answered with a nifty turnaround right-handed hook shot moments later to bring UCI within one with 3:12 remaining.
When neither team managed to convert on the next two minutes, possessions became magnified and in that moment, Jones rose on the occasion once more. Even with the ‘Eaters showing out the defense that has come to define them, Jones got off a long range bomb from the corner at the fingertips of UCI junior forward Jonathan Galloway to hand the Aggies a four-point lead with 41 seconds to go.
UCI called time and out of the break, Leonard drove hard into the Aggies paint, drew a foul and split his free throws to make it a three-point affair, 85-82.
Forced to play the ball and the foul game, Davis would convert some insurance baskets to finalize the game, effectively ending what has been arguably best game the conference has seen on the year.
“It was a great atmosphere all night,” Leonard said. “It was homecoming so there was a whole lot of fans that came out and it was a fun game to play in. We just weren’t able to make a few key plays down the stretch.”
As the Aggies avenge their loss for the conference title from a year ago, the ‘Eaters are looking forward to getting back at Davis in the same way that the opposition had last year in tournament play.
“We [got] them last year in this game and then Davis did it to us in the tournament and we’d like to return the favor,” coach Turner said.
Seeded at No. 3, the ‘Eaters’ wild run begins Thursday when they face No. 6 Hawai’i at 6 p.m. at the Honda Center.
“It’s March,” Leonard said. “Games start to get crazy [and] teams are playing for basically their whole season so teams are playing hard and everybody wants it … so I expect to have a couple more games like this.”