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SALT LAKE CITY - For the second game in a row, junior psychology major AJ John led the Aggies in scoring when he finished with 11 points in Wednesday’s Round One National Invitation Tournament game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, and the trio of senior communication major Michael Onyebalu, junior communication majors TJ Shorts II and Siler Schneider scored 10 apiece in a game the Aggies led from the opening tip through the first three-plus quarters. But a fourth quarter Utah scoring push, aided by free throws when UC Davis was forced to foul in the final minutes, helped the host Utes defeat the Ags by a 69-59 score in front of an announced crowd of 3,452.
UC Davis, ranked No. 7 in its NIT quadrant, ends the season at 22-11 after earning its third postseason berth in the last four seasons by winning the program’s third title during that same timespan. The Aggies earned the Big West Conference’s automatic NIT bid as the league’s regular season champions.
The 2017-18 campaign also marked the third time the Aggies won 20 or more games in a season, also within the last four years.
“This is a great group of young men who are a joy to be around, and have great personalities. They took us all, coaching staff included, on an awesome ride. Everyone will have memories for a lifetime, and this group will forever be connected because of what they achieved,” said UC Davis head coach Jim Les.
Wednesday’s game also marked the final appearance in an Aggie uniform for Onyebalu and senior American Studies major Arell Hennings.
In addition to notching the seventh double-figure point total of his career, Onyebalu recorded five rebounds and a career-high three steals.
“Michael has three titles in four years, which is pretty darn good for a guy who worked his way up from a non-scholarship walk-on to a starting role on this team. I’m not sure I ever coached a guy who ascended like he has,” said Les.
Hennings scored four points and played a key role on defense throughout his 17 minutes on the court with the Aggies in foul trouble for a majority of the evening.
“Arell is 2-for-2, two championships in two years here, that’s not a bad win percentage. Being a backup point guard, and I’ve been one, is not an easy job. He embraced that role to help this team succeed."
“I couldn’t be more proud of those seniors and this team,” Les added.
UC Davis opened the game with an 11-4 run, with five of those points scored off Utes’ turnovers and another eight scored in the paint. Those opening minutes provided a snapshot of the Aggies’ night since they ended the game by scoring 30 points down low and another 16 off 11 Utah turnovers.
Even after Utah head coach Larry Krystowiak was ejected midway through the second quarter for arguing a turnover called on his team (in an attempt to inject some energy into his squad and influence how things played out during the rest of the game) the Utes still trailed the Aggies, who led the entire first half and entered the locker room at the break with a 33-29 lead.
Once play resumed, junior economics major Garrison Goode scored four of his eight points in the early minutes of the third quarter, which extended his team’s lead to eight. And even though Utah was able to chip away at UC Davis’ lead throughout that 10-minute period, the Aggies were able to respond with clutch shots of their own, which included a straightaway three from John which helped UC Davis enter the fourth quarter up 48-47.
But it was that final period that saw Utah earn its first lead, and hold onto it until the final buzzer since the Aggies were forced to foul to stop the clock. And in that final quarter, the Utes hit 8 of 10 at the stripe to pull away and advance to the second round.
Even though the Aggies finished with a higher field goal total, they only earned 10 trips to the free throw line throughout the evening. UC Davis capitalized on eight of those opportunities, compared to Utah who hit 20 of 25. And in a game where every point mattered, that 12-point differential played a key role in the Utes’ result.
Utah, ranked No. 2 in its portion of the tournament’s bracket, is now 20-11 and will host LSU in its next NIT game. It was led by Justin Bibbins, who finished with 21 points.
“That was an emotional locker room afterwards. I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys. There were so many excuses along the way, chances to mail it in and take this season on a different course, but they showed their championship pedigree. They banded together and competed every time,” said Les.
Eight players will return for the Aggies next season, a group that includes four starters. Next season will also provide debut appearances for managerial economics majors Stefan Gonzalez, Matt Neufeld and human development major Jonah Underwood — all junior transfers who redshirted this past season. Philosophy major Gio Nelson and political science major Logan Strom are two freshmen newcomers who will also don a UC Davis jersey for the first time next year.
UTAH 69, UC DAVIS 59
UC DAVIS (22-11)
John, AJ 4-9 0-0 11; Onyebalu, Michael 4-5 0-0 10; Schneider, Siler 5-14 0-0 10; Shorts II, TJ 2-6 6-8 10; Goode, Garrison 3-7 2-2 8; Hennings, Arell 2-5 0-0 4; Mooney, Joe 2-9 0-0 4; Russell, Colin 1-3 0-0 2; Printup, Rogers 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-58 8-10 59.
Bibbins, Justin 5-11 8-8 21; Rawson, Tyler 3-9 5-6 11; Tillman, Donnie 3-4 5-7 11; Bealer, Gabe 3-7 0-0 9; Barefield, Sedrick 2-7 2-4 7; Collette, David 3-3 0-0 6; Johnson, Jayce 2-2 0-0 4; Caldwell, Kolbe 0-1 0-0 0; Van Dyke, Parker 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 21-47 20-25 69.
UC Davis...................... 17 16 15 11 - 59
Utah............................ 11 18 18 22 - 69
3-point goals--UC Davis 5-17 (John, AJ 3-6; Onyebalu, Michael 2-2; Shorts II, TJ 0-1; Hennings, Arell 0-2; Mooney, Joe 0-4; Schneider, Siler 0-2), Utah 7-28 (Bealer, Gabe 3-7; Bibbins, Justin 3-7; Barefield, Sedrick 1-4; Caldwell, Kolbe 0-1; Van Dyke, Parker 0-3; Tillman, Donnie 0-1; Rawson, Tyler 0-5). Fouled out--UC Davis-None, Utah-None. Rebounds--UC Davis 29 (Shorts II, TJ 6), Utah 35 (Rawson, Tyler 9). Assists--UC Davis 9 (Shorts II, TJ 5), Utah 16 (Collette, David 4; Rawson, Tyler 4). Total fouls--UC Davis 23, Utah 10. Technical fouls--UC Davis-Onyebalu, Michael, Utah-Collette, David; TEAM 2. A-3452 National Invitation Tournament - Round One
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