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Monday, March 4, 2024

Aggies hold off Roadrunners after two-week layoff

Big nights from the trio of Elijah Pepper, Ezra Manjon and Caleb Fuller lead the Aggies to an 81-79 win

By OMAR NAVARRO — sports@theaggie.org

After having their road games against UC San Diego and UC Irvine and home game against Cal Poly canceled due to COVID-19 protocols, the UC Davis Men’s Basketball team returned to action Saturday to face the Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners inside the University Credit Union Center. 

The first matchup between the two teams was originally scheduled for Jan. 13 in Bakersfield, but COVID-19 issues within the Roadrunners program led to its cancellation. With Big West Conference games running low, UC Davis looked to continue to rack up wins and have some momentum heading into the tournament. 

Having won two straight heading into Saturday night’s contest, the Aggies looked to continue the streak against the Roadrunners who were 1-9 in conference play. Still, it was not an opponent to take lightly as they had been in close games prior, just unable to close it out. After the opening tip, it became clear that this game would be a physical one. Trading buckets to open the game, Cal State Bakersfield’s senior forward Shawn Stith went on a personal run, scoring the first seven points for the Roadrunners as well as drawing two quick fouls on the Aggies’ junior forward Christian Anigwe.

The fouls forced head coach Jim Les to sub out Anigwe less than two minutes in to avoid getting into even more foul trouble. Les inserted the 6’11” first-year Francesco Borra to combat the size of Stith. After Bakersfield ran out to a 9-3 lead, UC Davis stormed back with a quick 5-0 run to cut the early deficit to one.

The Aggies took their first lead almost five minutes into the half, as a pair of jumpers by star guard Ezra Manjon gave them a 12-11 lead. After a response by the Roadrunners, the Aggies proceeded to go on a 9-1 run behind some fast pace and extra passes. The ball movement began to pick up for UC Davis and it led to some great open looks that they converted. 

As would be the story all night however, Cal State Bakersfield continued to hang around. Stith continued to dominate the paint and play physical against an Aggies team that lacked some size. Aside from Stith however, the Aggies did a great job at sniffing out postups and communicating on screens. This tenacious defense allowed them to stay in the lead after a two-and-a-half-minute scoring drought midway through the first half. 

A five minute stretch that began around the 10-minute mark of the half saw Bakersfield reassess themselves in the game as free throws and points inside the painted area boosted them up to a 30-25 lead. They also switched to a full-court press after making shots, putting pressure on the Aggies as they crossed halfcourt and set up their offense. 

The final five minutes of the half saw the same physicality as the first 15 — but now both teams were in the bonus. With teams exchanging free throws, Bakersfield would prove to be the team to take advantage of the slower pace. With 1:29 remaining in the half, a three pointer by second-year guard Kaleb Higgins gave the Roadrunners a 39-34 lead. Following a missed dunk by Manjon, he proceeded to score a layup and some free throws to make the half time score 39-38 in favor of the visiting Cal State Bakersfield.

As a team, the Aggies shot 12-24 from the field in the first half but only 1-6 on threes. Bakersfield didn’t shoot any better, only going 14-34 and 1-8 from three. But, six Aggie turnovers turned into nine Roadrunner points, and it allowed Bakersfield to still hold the lead despite shooting worse. Manjon led the Aggies with 13 points with forward Caleb Fuller right behind him with 10 points and three rebounds. On the other side, Stith had more than half of the Roadrunners points with 20 points and four rebounds.

To start the second half, Anigwe was back in for UC Davis after only playing a little under two minutes in the first half due to foul trouble. Five points by Bakersfield’s first-year guard Dalph Panopio extended the Roadrunners’ lead to five. To make matters worse, Anigwe picked up another foul and was subsequently subbed out once again in favor of Borra with three fouls.

A back and forth began to occur on the floor, as neither team gave the other any breathing room. Hard, physical play made up the start of the second half with Bakersfield clinging on to their lead that failed to grow more than five. An offensive putback by the Aggies finally tied things up at 50 with a little over 15 minutes remaining in the second half. A three pointer by the Roadrunners was answered back by an Elijah Pepper three for the Aggies — a sign of life from the outside. 

A free throw by Caleb McGill at the 12:38 mark gave the Aggies the lead for the first time in over 13 minutes of gameplay. The switch to the zone defense by UC Davis proved to be effective as they were finally able to slow down Stith after his first-half tear. Still, others on the Bakersfield like Higgins, Panopio and senior forward Justin McCall began to pick up the Bakersfield offense. 

At the midway mark of the second half, Panopio and McCall began to come alive as the Roadrunners held a five point lead. With the offense sputtering at times, the Aggies turned to some of their more experienced players, as Manjon, Pepper and Fuller began to step up. A midrange jumper by Manjon was followed by five quick Fuller points that let the Aggies regain the lead, 61-60. The Roadrunners called timeout and looked for answers. 

The answers wouldn’t come for Cal State Bakersfield as UC Davis never lost the lead for the final 8:27 of the game. Re-entering the game with four fouls, Bakersfield hoped that Stith would find a way to continue his tear from the first half. But, almost immediately after entering the game, he was called for another foul that would end his night.

Even after Stith fouled out, the Roadrunners kept on fighting. Their guard Higgins continued to attack and scored seven straight points for Bakersfield. On the UC Davis side, Manjon and Pepper scored the next nine for their squad as each possession was played with intensity. With 2:01 remaining in regulation, the Aggies led by six after a dazzling Manjon jumper that electrified the crowd. A three pointer by Higgins kept the Roadrunners hopes alive, but the final minute or so proved to be a free throw battle that the Aggies would hold on to win, 81-79. 

Elijah Pepper finished as the Aggies leading scorer with 24 points and perfect 12-12 from the free throw line as Manjon was right behind him with 23 points to go along with five rebounds and three assists. Caleb Fuller had 18 of his own as the trio combined for 65 of the 81 UC Davis points. As a team, the Aggies shot 29-35 from the free throw line — an important stat as each was necessary to pull out the win. Although they were only 4-13 from three and never able to get it going against the Bakersfield defense, 32 points in the paint allowed the Aggies to win their third straight game. 

UC Davis improved to 11-7 on the year and 4-3 in conference play. With all the cancellations in conference play, that leaves them with only four more games to play. Currently in the sixth spot in the Big West Conference standings, the Aggies will face off against UC Santa Barbara (2/24) and Cal State Northridge (2/26) for their last home games of the season. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org

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