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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Aggies lose a heartbreaker in overtime; win on Senior Night in last home game of the year

Elijah Pepper and Ezra Manjon carried the Aggies down the stretch, but the Gauchos proved to be too much in the final minutes. Still, they sent off their seniors with a win

By MARLON ROLON — sports@theaggie.org

The UC Davis Men’s Basketball team came into the University Credit Union Center hot, riding a three-game win streak prior to Thursday night’s Big West showdown against UC Santa Barbara, who had won four of their last five games.

Because this is a conference game, they typically play each team in the Big West twice during the season. The first matchup between the Aggies and Gauchos was slated on Jan. 22 in Santa Barbara; however, the game was canceled due to COVID-19. UC Davis has played only 19 games throughout the season, a league low, due to eight being called off because of COVID-19 issues.  

The Aggies’ last loss came at the hands of Long Beach State on Jan. 29, then beat the likes of UC Riverside, Hawaii and CSU Bakersfield by no more than five points. With momentum building as they near the end of the season, both teams are fighting for seeding implications — the top six seeds earn a first round bye in the Big West tournament.

However, the Gauchos, who rank #3 on offense and #4 on defense in the conference, had a significant size advantage — four of their players measure a staggering 6 ’10” and another who’s right under at 6’ 9”. After the opening tip, it became evident that UC Davis would struggle matching up to UCSB’s size, especially with starter Caleb Fuller out due to injury. 

The visiting team were quick to score a put back dunk by forward Miles Norris the 6 ’10” 220-pound junior. Then, Josh Pierre-Louis, the third-year guard, followed up by splashing a three pointer, making it a 5-0 start. Rebounding looked to be an issue from the start as the home team lacked a physical presence inside the paint. 

After Santa Barbara got off to a 9-4 lead, UC Davis second-year guard Elijah Pepper took advantage of a turnover eliciting a spin move for the easy bucket that sparked a 6-0 run for the Aggies giving them their first lead of the game off a one point margin. The high-flying guard Ezra Manjon facilitated the ball to teammates, Kane Milling and Aaron Murphy as they scored off open looks. Manjon’s elusive handles and ball movement gave the opposing defense problems. 

Second chance buckets became the narrative — forward Amadou Sow became a factor, bullying his way on the inside and taking advantage of the pick and roll mismatches. The Gauchos led 15-12 with Sow being responsible for eight of those points.

“We weren’t physical enough blocking out and that hurt us,” UC Davis Head Coach Jim Les said after the game. 

Manjon decided to insert his offensive presence with a quick stepback jumper. The Aggies’ defense stood their ground deflecting the ball with Manjon tracking down the rock running full speed down the court with a beautiful behind-the-back pass to Pepper for the easy two causing a standing ovation from the crowd. A few plays later senior  Cameron Ba contributed with a three pointer making it a 7-0 run. Once again, the hosts took the lead 19-15. 

The pace slowed in the final minutes of the first half, allowing Santa Barbara to regroup as the Aggies went into the locker room leading 31-25.  

“I thought the rebounding [was an issue], especially in the first half,” Les said. “We held them to 25 points but they got 10 of those points off second chances, rebounds, put backs and that size and athleticism.”

UC Davis shot 13-27 from the field, 40% from the three-point line, committed five turnovers, and picked up 17 rebounds. Pepper led the team with 12 points and two steals with Milling not too far back, adding seven points of his own being efficient with his shot selection. Manjon had five points with five assists as well at the break. 

Santa Barbara shot 11-36 from the field, 1-7 (14%) from beyond the arc, committed four turnovers with 24 rebounds. They dominated the offensive boards with 12, which is what kept them in the game. 

The Gauchos swung the ball around until finally first-year Ajay Mitchell opened the second half scoring a 16-foot jumper over Milling. Suddenly, it became the Mitchell show, as he scored seven straight points with a pair of and one’s. He became the focal point of the offense for the Gauchos doing what he wanted whenever he wanted, pushing the ball down the court while shooting at will. 

There was a scoreless drought for two and a half minutes until third-year forward Christian Anigwe made a much-needed layup. Pepper and Manjon had open looks but the ball would not go in the hoop with the Aggies desperately needed buckets to stay within striking distance. However, Mitchell kept knocking down contested jumpers, continuing his dominance. The visitors once took the lead 39-38 with about 10 minutes left in the second half.

“Mitchell got hot; he’s a good player, and he kinda just went one on one,” Les said. “He went one on one against our best defender with Ade hanging all over him, [Mitchell] made [shots on] some tough looks.”

Both teams would keep trading baskets, but the difference was Mitchell and Pierre-Louis drawing shooting fouls and going to the line knocking down free throws. With 6:22 remaining, Pierre-Louis would score on a fast break turnover bumping their lead to 47-42. Just as Santa Barbara began to pull away, Manjon finally made a cameo scoring his first points of the half with a jumper over Sow. 

Over a minute later, Mitchell once again was clutch splitting two defenders shooting a rainbow shot over the 6’ 8” forward Caleb McGill, 51-46. Regardless, the Aggies would not go away with Murphy scoring his free throws and a drive into the paint from Manjon to rally the crowd and cut the deficit to two, 52-50. 

One of the biggest plays of the game happened off an inbound pass from Ba to Pepper on a quick catch and shoot from the three-point line over a defender. Finally, Pepper made his presence felt as the Aggies trailed by one, 54-53 with 1:55 remaining. A few lead changes later, the home team led by one with a pair of free throws from Pepper. However, with 25 seconds remaining Mitchell scored a step-back three over Adebayo putting the Gauchos on top 59-57. The first-year scored 18 points in the second half alone, shooting 7-10 from the field, 1-1 from 30 feet and going 3-4 on his free throws. 

The intensity turned up, and the home team would not go away without a fight. In the last 16 seconds remaining the drama unfolded, Manjon took over, scoring over Mitchell and getting fouled in the process; however, he would go on to miss the crucial free throw. Luckily for the Aggies, Adebayo powered through and rebounded the ball but Coach Les would call a timeout to regroup. An inbounds pass to Manjon saw him run underneath the basket for a quick layup over Sow to tie the game at 59. 

The game was on the line — Mitchell took a step back and shot the ball as time expired, narrowly missing with the ball bouncing off the rim. There would be an extra five-minute quarter to decide the winner in overtime.

“Those guys are really big time competitors. They had a refuse to lose attitude and they just kept coming back making plays. [Manjon and Pepper] those guys were awesome. They put us on their back and carried us through that second half and into overtime,” Les said about his dynamic duo on offense. 

In overtime, the Aggies took the lead 61-60 after Pierre-Louis dunked the ball but got called for a technical for hanging on the rim which resulted in a free throw shot by Pepper and a step-back jumper by Manjon. The game was close again, both teams exchanged lead changes until Mitchell once again threw up a dagger from beyond the arc to go up 66-64. 

After two missed free throws by the Gauchos, the Aggies caught a break getting a rebound off their missed shots until the ball was kicked out to Pepper who hammered a corner,  three causing an eruption of cheers from the crowd — once again, Pepper was the hero making the most of his opportunities. That was the last time UC Davis led, eventually falling to Santa Barbara 76-69.

“I thought we fought really hard, and we had some great opportunities. Some nights, the ball just doesn’t go in. We had great shots, we had the right guys shooting the shots and they just didn’t go in and they made some tough shots. So you got to give them credit too; I thought our defense was really good all game, but they hit some tough contested shots,” Les said after the game. “We had some good looks, and they didn’t go in, and that was just enough for them to get separation, but I thought it was a heck of a basketball game.” 

Pepper led the Aggies with 21 points and four threes followed by Manjon’s 19, five rebounds and six assists. Milling was efficient throughout the game adding 11 points going 5-8 from the field. The home team scored 38 points from the paint; however, they shot 7 for 12 from the free throw line which ended up hurting them in the end.

Santa Barbara’s Mitchell scored a season-high 31 points while his teammate Sow finished with a double-double 17 points and 11 rebounds. Pierre-Louis contributed with 14 points. The Gauchos success came behind their 46 rebounds and their 14 second chance points. 

UC Davis’ overall record dropped to 11-8 and 4-4 in conference play. They are tied with UC Santa Barbara for the sixth seed in the Big West Conference standings. The Aggies hosted CSU Northridge in their last home game of the season (2/26) . This particular game held meaning as it was senior night, Caleb Fuller, Cameron Ba, and B.J. Shaw would suit up for the last time at home for UC Davis. The home crowd sent them off with a standing ovation, but the celebration didn’t end there. The Aggies beat CSU Northridge 68-49 sweeping them for the season series. Up next, they travel to Long Beach on (3/3) and conclude their season against CSU Fullerton on (3/5). 

After the game coach Les was asked about his preparation and what he is looking for in the final games of the season before the tournament in Henderson, Nevada.

“Momentum, we want to continue to play well,” he said. “We want to get healthy and develop a game rhythm. We had some stops and starts with our down time and it’d be nice to string some games together that we can play and develop some continuity and go into Vegas with some confidence.” 

Written by: Marlon Rolon — sports@theaggie.org

 

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