ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — UC Davis coach Jim Les was pumping his fist with a piece of championship net long after the school had won its first Big West Tournament title.
His elation was palpable, just like that of his players.
A decade after joining the conference, the Aggies are set to make their NCAA Tournament debut.
Brynton Lemar scored 20 points to lead No. 2 seed UC Davis to a 50-47 victory Saturday night over top-seeded UC Irvine in the Big West championship game.
UC Davis (22-12) transitioned to Division I status in 2004 and joined the Big West in 2007.
“It’s unbelievable,” Les said. “I’m so happy for these guys. They’ve worked so hard all year, and they deserve it. Great kids, great character and they’re a joy to coach.”
In the regular-season finale between the teams a week ago, UC Irvine routed UC Davis 79-49. What a difference seven days can make.
This matchup was practically a home game for UC Irvine (21-14), with its campus located only 15 miles from Honda Center. But the Anteaters were cold from the field at the start and Luke Nelson, the Big West player of the year, couldn’t get untracked. He finished with a team-high 14 points.
UC Irvine scored just 16 points in the first half and shot only 6 of 23 (26 percent). The Anteaters went ahead in the second half, but UC Davis made the key plays down the stretch to win.
UC Irvine took a 42-37 lead with 4:09 left, but UC Davis was stout on defense over those final four minutes.
“I like our team. This is a team of closers with experience and at that point I expected to win,” UC Irvine coach Russell Turner said. “With four points, typically in those situations, we’ve been able to defend well enough to maintain our lead.”
UC Davis forward Chima Moneke was selected tournament MVP. He had nine points, seven rebounds, three blocks and one steal in the victory over UC Irvine.
UC Davis, an agricultural school, will gain publicity all over the country for basketball when its name pops up in NCAA Tournament brackets for the first time Sunday.
UC Irvine will be dwelling on all the missed shots and adjustments it failed to make after beating the same team by 30 points a week ago.
Seven different schools have won the Big West Tournament over the past seven years.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“I didn’t want anyone else,” Moneke said. “I knew we could beat them. After they beat us, people forgot we beat them the first time. The fans at the end of that game were chanting some things we didn’t like. We took it personally and to heart … 47 points, defensively, you can’t get much better than that.”
COLD AS ICE
Neither team shot well in the first half of the championship game. They were as cold as the ice under the court at Honda Center, home of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks. UC Irvine shot 38 percent for the game, and UC Davis shot just 34 percent.
UC Davis is headed to the NCAA Tournament and will feature good-shooting guards and a shot blocker and rebounding machine in Moneke.
UC Irvine, by virtue of winning the Big West Conference regular-season title, gets an automatic bid to the NIT.