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UC Davis Busting Brackets!

The UC Davis Aggies, preparing to face the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.

My name is Paulo Camacho, and this is Macho Sports.

With the college basketball season coming to a close, the UC Davis men’s basketball team was focusing on a possible postseason. Even with a 9-16 record coming into Saturday, the Aggies still held their playoff destiny in their own hands. Their two-game out-of-conference stint was meant to be a springboard into the last few games of the Big West Conference schedule, and a winning record the rest of the way would most likely give them a berth in the Big West postseason tournament.

These were the stakes involved in the Aggies’ game against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors on Saturday. With a record of 14-10, Hawaii stood as a major challenge for UC Davis. Ranking 14th in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.389), the ‘Bows lead the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) in blocks, averaging 3.92 per game. This would mark the first meeting between the two teams, and, interestingly enough, a primer for a future rivalry: Hawaii will be moving from the WAC to the Big West in 2012.

Aside from the actual contest, however, Saturday held a ton of significance for the Aggies, and the community of Davis. UC Davis’ game marked the celebration of 100 years of Aggies basketball. Alumni from teams past were invited to join the festivities – honorary appearances before the game, as well as a commemorative banquet afterwards. Alumni like women’s head coach Sandy Simpson were expected to attend.

“It’s great to have that support, guys coming back to support our team,” said senior guard Joe Harden. “It’s cool to start a tradition like that, to come back in [five or] ten years.”

“It’s also Special Olympics Day, and Come to College Day: free admission for middle school and high school basketball teams,” Darbonne added. “It’s also Staff & Faculty Day.”

Furthermore, the Aggies and the Rainbow Warriors were just two of 114 teams to take part in the annual ESPNU BracketBusters event, held at 57 venues across the country. This would be the third year in a row the Aggies have participated in the event.

“It’s pretty cool to be able to host a BracketBusters game,” said Adam Darbonne, an emcee for the Aggie Pack, UC Davis’ student-run spirit organization. “It’s a big game; it creates a lot of hype, and it gets Davis a lot of recognition nationally, that we don’t get all the time.”

In commemoration of hosting the Rainbow Warriors for the BracketBuster game, the Aggie Pack were given makeshift leis to wear. Unfortunately, it seemed to help Hawaii more than the Aggies. After a three-pointer from guard Mark Payne gave UC Davis a 3-2 advantage, the Rainbow Warriors used an 13-0 run to take a commanding lead, 15-3. Hawaii was able to keep the Aggies at arm’s length for the majority of the first half, using a barrage of threes by guards Zane Johnson and Jeremiah Ostrowski. Aggie guards Joe Harden, Ryan Howley and Mark Payne were forced to hit three-point jumpers of their own, in order to keep up with the red-hot Hawaii backcourt.

“We never game plan to try to shoot a certain number of threes,” said freshman guard Josh Ritchart, who went 3-for-4 on three-pointers. “I think that just happens when we have a lot of good shooters.”

After Hawaii took a 23-13 lead later in the first half, UC Davis used an 8-0 run of their own to energize the crowd, and cut the advantage to two. With the student section on their feet, Darbonne and the rest of the Aggie Pack officials enacted “Bead Madness” – throwing blue and gold beads into the crowd.

Deep into the first half, UC Davis was still hanging with Hawaii, with timely shots and great defensive stops. A Todd Lowenthal layup with 1:00 left in the first half gave the Aggies their second lead of the game, only to be countered by a Zane Johnson layup just before the half. By then, the trends were clear: three-pointers and turnovers by both teams were keeping the game close, at 38-37. The Aggies committed 8 turnovers while hitting 7-for-16 from behind the three-point line. The Rainbow Warriors, meanwhile, committed 10 turnovers, but hit 5-for-10 from three – guard Zane Johnson accounted for 3-for-5 from behind the arc.

The Aggies’ game plan did not waver, despite Zane Johnson’s performance thus far – prevent the frontcourt, made up of forward Bill Amis and center Vander Joaquim, from getting too much penetration inside, leading to easy shots. It seemed to be working, for the most part, but it left Johnson, who already had 16 points in the first half, to go off on the Aggies from behind the three-point arc.

“He’s just a really great shooter,” Richart said afterwards of the sharpshooting Hawaii guard. “He’s pretty tall, too; he’s got some good size to him, and he can step out to NBA range, too. He was a hard player to stop.”

His two three-pointers to start the second half helped the Warriors attain a double-digit lead, 52-41. Darbonne and the Aggie Pack, in response, decided something needed to be done during a television timeout to get the student section back in good spirits.

“I know you’re getting a little hungry,” he exclaimed. “So, get on your feet for … STEVE’S PIZZA MADNESS!!”

Despite the free pizza, the Aggies were still struggling to get back into the game. Two missed free throws by Payne on a Hawaii technical foul didn’t help their efforts, but jumpers by Ritchart and Harden kept them to within eight points late in the second half.

Unfortunately, that’s the closest the Aggies would get down the stretch. Thanks to a total of nine three-pointers from Zane Johnson, his eighth serving as the final nail in the coffin for the Aggies, Hawaii put UC Davis away in the final minutes, winning 83-69. Afterwards, coach Gary Stewart diagnosed the noticeable change between the first and second halfs.

“Well, we only gave up one offensive rebound in the first half; in the second half, [Hawaii] got two in the first minute,” he explained. “We couldn’t get them stopped. With less than ten minutes to go, it was still a two-possession game. But it always felt it was a larger deficit than six points; we just felt like we were continuing to come uphill.”

Despite everything, though, Stewart and the Aggies are confident going forward, still hoping to find success with the last few games of the regular season.

“I like the way we compete, and we got some tough guys in that locker room,” Stewart said about his team. “They understand what’s at stake. It’ll be good – this is what college basketball is all about.”

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