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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Late comeback downs men’s basketball on Senior Night

Hawaii’s 18-3 run in final minutes spoils Aggies’ final home game of the season

The UC Davis men’s basketball team led 62-49 with four minutes, 52 seconds remaining in the ballgame on Thursday night and looked as if it was going to cruise to its seventh win in nine games. But the Wahine responded with a furious 18-3 run over the final stretch of the contest to take back the lead and steal a win at the Pavilion — stunning the Aggies on senior night.

UC Davis opened the evening honoring the team’s four seniors — guards Joe Mooney, Stefan Gonzalez and Rogers Printup, and center Matt Neufeld — who were playing at the Pavilion for the final time in their collegiate careers. Both Mooney and Printup are four-year athletes who have been with the program since 2015, while Gonzalez and Neufeld transferred to UC Davis in 2017. Despite their different collegiate journeys, each of this year’s seniors has made impactful contributions to Aggie basketball over their time at UC Davis.

At the game’s opening tip, Printup was the only senior starting for the Aggies alongside freshman guards Ezra Manjon and Elijah Pepper, sophomore guard Damion Squire and junior forward Kennedy Koehler. Head coach Jim Les and his staff opted for a younger, more guard-heavy lineup to begin the contest, which likely contributed to UC Davis’ energetic opening.

The Aggie starters attacked the Hawaii defense with a fast-paced, high-intensity motion offense that allowed UC Davis to get some open looks early and jump out to a quick lead. Four of the first five UC Davis baskets were assisted, each by a different Aggie, showing the cohesiveness and fluidity of the team’s attack. 

But Hawaii abruptly shook the slow start and clamped down on the the Aggies, taking the lead and forcing a near five-minute UC Davis scoring drought that finally ended when sophomore guard Caleb Fuller knocked down a shot off a Mooney dish. But points were still hard to come by for the Aggies at this point, and it wasn’t until Fuller nailed a triple a few minutes later that UC Davis cut the Hawaii lead to one, 22-21, with just over four minutes left in the half.

Fortunately for the Aggies, their defense was operating well enough to keep things close while the offense struggled on the other end. With just under three minutes remaining in the half, UC Davis switched to a zone defense that immediately gave the Wahine trouble, forcing a shot-clock violation.

To salvage what was otherwise a largely forgetful half of basketball, the Aggies hit two threes in the final 30 seconds of the half to take a one-point lead at the break. The first was Mooney’s first and only made field goal of the game in the 11 minutes he played — a corner three to cut the Hawaii lead to two — and then Manjon hoisted up a prayer that banked home from beyond halfcourt at the buzzer to put UC Davis up 31-30.

Whatever halftime adjustments Les and the coaching staff made seemed to pay off right away for UC Davis in the second frame. The Aggies opened the half on a 13-5 run, and from there began to build a sizable lead, thanks in large part to the offensive talents of Manjon. The freshman weaved through the heart of the Hawaii defense and found enough airspace to sink five mid-range jump shots. He led the Aggies in scoring on Thursday with 18 points on 8-11 shooting to go along with five assists.

Everything was going right for UC Davis through the first half of the second period: shots were going down, the defense was in sync — they were even making the hustle plays. With eight minutes to play, Pepper made a diving effort for a loose ball in the Hawaii end of the floor, deflecting it to an open Printup, who dished it to Squire for the fast-break lay in.

That sequence put the Aggies up 11 and got the fans inside the Pavilion on their feet. After Pepper knocked down a pair of free throws with 4:42 remaining, UC Davis had amassed a 13-point, 62-49 lead and looked as if it would be in control of the final minutes of the contest.

But a Hawaii free throw and then back-to-back triples by Hawaii junior guard Samuta Avea signaled to all those involved that the Wahine were not going to just pack it in. The quick 7-0 run forced UC Davis to call a timeout to regroup, but it only prolonged the Hawaii surge. Avea nailed a third three-ball off an Aggie shot clock violation turnover, and then Pepper had the ball stolen from him to give way to a thundering Hawaii fast-break dunk. The 12-0 Wahine run turned a 13-point hole into a one-point deficit in just two and a half minutes of game time.

Following the dunk, the Aggies were able to stop the bleeding (at least temporarily) with a Pepper three from the top of the arc. But this turned out to be the last points that UC Davis was able to score. Despite the Aggies putting the ball in the hands of the best three-point shooter in the country for their final possession, Gonzalez was unable to make a contested triple. This left Hawaii 17.9 seconds to get a good look at a shot, trailing by just two points.

Unsurprisingly, Hawaii elected to feed the hot hand for a chance to deliver the knockout blow. With just three seconds to spare, Avea floated to the near corner on a Hawaii in-bound and sunk his fourth three of the game to complete the comeback and hand the Aggies their seventh conference loss. In the end, Avea connected on four of the Wahine’s seven made threes, with each of his makes coming in the final four minutes of the contest.

Les owed much of the Hawaii comeback to his team taking rushed shots and being careless with the ball late, saying that “we got to find ways to close out games.”

“We got up 12 [and] we almost got more in a hurry instead of being patient,” Les explained. “A couple long possessions, moving the ball and getting a great look — because when we did move the ball I thought we got really good shots. We just got rushed. And then our turnovers are leading right to layups where we can’t even get back and defend. So it’s something we gotta get cleaned up. And that’s on us and the coaching staff to work with these guys to get that cleaned up, because they’re certainly capable. Because they did it for 35 minutes and played a good game and probably deserved to win. But you gotta play 40 minutes.”

After taking the 13-point lead with 4:42 to go, the Aggies committed four turnovers in seven possessions before Avea hit his final three. And while Les believed that the majority of Avea’s shots down the stretch were fairly well contested, he reiterated that the Aggies “opened the door for them [Hawaii] with our rushed offense and our turnovers. [You need] to make plays and they [Hawaii] made plays when they needed to.”

The contributions that the Aggies have enjoyed from their two freshman phenoms — Pepper and Manjon — have been critical for their success this season. But if anything, Thursday night was a reminder of their youth. The duo combined for half of the 16 UC Davis turnovers, including a few critical miscues in crunch time.

Still, Pepper and Manjon led the team with 33 and 32 minutes played, respectively. They also were the only Aggie players besides Fuller (who tied Pepper with 11 points) to score in double figures, combining for 29. Pepper led the team in rebounds and Manjon in assists, all showing the duality of relying so heavily on young talent.

“It should hurt and we’ll let it hurt until tomorrow morning and then we’ll refocus,” Les said. “Not much we can do about this one, but we can get ready for the one on Saturday. And we’re still fighting for our positioning and we gotta stay focused on that.”

Even after being beaten in both games against Hawaii this season, the Aggies still had a chance to finish ahead of them in the Big West standings going into the team’s final game on Saturday at UC Riverside. 

But UC Davis couldn’t quite do what Hawaii did to them on Thursday — the Aggies’ second-half comeback in Riverside was snuffed out and they suffered a 66-61 loss to finish out the season with an 8-8 conference record. Mooney erupted for 24 points on 8-13 shooting in a much more expanded role, while Fuller added in 18 of his own. The rest of the Aggies combined for a mere six made field goals on 29 attempts — including Pepper and Manjon, who combined for just nine points on 2-13 shooting.

Losing three of their final four games was certainly not how UC Davis intended to end its regular season, but now the Aggies have their sights set on the Big West tournament where they’ll have a chance to make one last run at a spot in the NCAA tournament. The Aggies enter the conference tournament as a fifth seed and will open with a quarterfinals matchup on Thursday against who else but Hawaii. The late tip is set for 8:30 p.m. down at the Honda Center in Anaheim.

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org


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