UC Davis men’s basketball drops tight conference opener

UC Davis men’s basketball drops tight conference opener

Photo Credits: BENJAMIN CHENG / AGGIE. Guard Erza Manjon (5,right) of the UC Davis men's basketball team dribbles along the baseline while being guarded by Dominick Pickett (22,left) during the game against UC Riverside on Thursday, Jan 9, 2020.

Aggies stumble in another close defeat

The UC Davis men’s basketball team suffered another painfully close loss in Thursday night’s Big West Conference opener, falling 65-59 to UC Riverside at The Pavilion. 

The tough defeat dropped the Aggies’ record to 6-11 on the season, with the last nine defeats all coming by 10 points or less. UC Davis is one of the youngest teams in the nation with a half dozen freshman and three sophomores on the 14-man squad, but the lack of experience has not held the team back. 

With the exception of a 82-48 season-opening loss at Loyola Chicago, the Aggies have given themselves a chance to win every game they have played in, often turning around large deficits with big second half comebacks. 

On Thursday night, UC Davis got off to a rocky start again, punishing itself with six sloppy turnovers in the opening four minutes of action. The team quickly fell behind and was forced to play catch-up for all but 43 seconds on the night, never once holding a lead.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t get enough contributions from everybody, from our starters to our bench,” said ninth-year Head Coach Jim Les. “I didn’t think our defensive intensity was what it needed to be. I thought we had too many unforced offensive errors and we’ve got to get that cleaned up if we’re going to be successful in this league.” 

The Aggies were able to weather the early storm thanks to consecutive three pointers by senior guards Joe Mooney and Stefan Gonzalez and sophomore guard Caleb Fuller. UC Davis relied on its sharp shooting from long range to stay competitive early in the game, nailing four of its first six attempts beyond the arc. 

Unfortunately, for the home team, UC Riverside simply would not slow down and instantly responded with eight points in a row to eliminate any momentum the Pavilion crowd hoped to create. The Highlanders shot 61.5% in the first half and were difficult to stop in the low post, scoring a total of 24 points in the paint. They also took advantage of nine UC Davis turnovers and cashed in on numerous points in transition. 

UCR took a 37-29 lead into the locker room at halftime, but it could have been a lot worse for the Aggies without sizable contributions from their bench. Gonzalez hit a trio of three pointers and Fuller was perfect from the field. 

The same problems continued to remerge for UC Davis in the second half when a flurry of six more turnovers in a four-minute stretch came at the most inopportune moment. The Aggies had began to build momentum with a 6-0 scoring run that cut the deficit to three points, but the team quickly got careless with the ball, which prompted a five-and-a-half minute scoring drought. 

“I’m not sure if it was nerves, but I thought a lot of those turnovers were from a lack of aggressiveness,” Les said. “If we make aggressive turnovers trying to make plays, you can live with those. But the ones tonight were unaggressive.”

The Aggies immediately suffered the consequences as UCR rattled off 10 straight points to regain a 13-point edge.  

As time started to run out, UC Davis kept chipping away at the deficit, largely due to the efforts of freshman guards Ezra Manjon and Elijah Pepper. The young duo — which had a combined total of 30 points that night — started to run loose on the fast break and suddenly the Aggies found themselves in a one-possession game with 42 ticks left on the clock. UC Riverside did not let it slip in the final minute though, calmly hitting seven free throws to ice the game. 

Besides Mooney, nobody else on the roster has played more minutes than Manjon and Pepper. Manjon, the only player to start all 17 games, ranks second behind Mooney in points scored and leads the team in assists. Pepper has especially made his presence felt on the defensive end of the court, leading the squad in rebounds and steals. Both players have made significant impacts in their short time on campus and undoubtedly have bright futures ahead of them at UC Davis.

UC Davis will enjoy a second consecutive weekend off before resuming conference play on Thursday at Long Beach State. Overall, the Aggies have hardly spent any time in Davis over the first two months of the season. The team’s 12 road games during the non-conference slate are the most in any season since Les took over in 2011. 

The Aggies have been highly competitive in all but one contest this season, but are continually finding themselves on the wrong side of close results. The young players have certainly experienced the high’s and low’s of a college basketball season and have had to learn some tough lessons the hard way.

“The mentality is that we have to just keep working and stop beating ourselves and shooting ourselves in the foot,” Les said. “We had a number of miscues tonight on both ends of the floor, so we’ve got to eliminate those. Teams are good enough, especially the way they play, where we can’t feed the fire and make mistakes on our own and I thought we did that tonight.”

During Thanksgiving week, UC Davis came excruciatingly close to knocking off a pair of Pac-12 opponents on the road. On a short road trip to Berkeley, the Aggies dug themselves an 18-point hole against Cal and were headed for an embarrassing blowout loss on national television until they furiously stormed back to grab the lead with nine minutes left in regulation, before eventually losing by six. Three days later in Salt Lake City, the team endured another sluggish start and fell behind by 13 at halftime, but another heroic comeback came up just short in the 77-73 loss to Utah. 

Other notable losses include a double overtime defeat against VMI at the Red Wolves Classic in Jonesboro, Ark. in November and a five-point loss against New Mexico in front of a raucous crowd of nearly 11,000 fans in late December. 

The Aggies hope their fortunes will turn around as the Big West slate progresses and maybe the ball will start rolling their way down the stretch. UC Davis won back-to-back conference titles from 2017-2018 before suffering a disappointing setback last season. 

With so much fresh, up-and-coming talent that will keep developing over the course of the season, there is no reason to believe the Aggies will not challenge for another championship in the near future. 

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org