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Monday, February 26, 2024

UC Davis Men’s Basketball falls in Big West Tournament Quarterfinals

After beating Cal Poly in the First Round, a second half run by Cal State Fullerton ended the Aggies’ season.

By OMAR NAVARRO— sports@theaggie.org

Ending the season against the eventual Big West regular season champion Long Beach State and second-seeded Cal State Fullerton, the UC Davis Men’s Basketball team knew they would have great tests of measurement heading into the Big West Tournament. Going down to the wire with Long Beach State, they lost 65-68 on a go-ahead three with one second left. In the regular season finale, the Aggies once again fell by a score of 59-62 in Fullerton. 

“We went on the road and went against No. 1 and No. 2 and to lose on a three at the gun and probably shot ourselves in the foot with a lead at Fullerton, I think we came away, although disappointed with the result, confident in who we were and how the margin of the top teams in this league is really small,” Head Coach Jim Les said with regard to their last two regular season games.

The two losses meant the Aggies had to play an extra game in the tournament, and as the seventh seed, they played No. 10 Cal Poly in the first round. 

From the newly opened Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, NV, the Aggies looked to punch their ticket in the Big West Tournament Quarterfinals against the Cal Poly Mustangs. The Aggies fell in their only meeting back on Jan. 15 in San Luis Obispo, 74-82, and did not play them again after the game in Davis was canceled.

After the opening tip, it was clear that this game would be back and forth. Regardless of records or seeding, the tournament always brings excitement and intensity. The Mustangs opened the scoring with a three pointer, before the Aggies responded with four points of their own thanks to All-Big West Second Team guard Elijah Pepper and star forward Caleb Fuller. Exchanging buckets through the first 10 minutes, neither team held more than a three point lead. 

The Aggies were finally able to gain some separation with about eight minutes left in the half, as Fuller and junior forward Christian Anigwe got some shots to go leading to a Mustangs timeout. Fuller had eight of the Aggies’ 17 points, being aggressive and driving it to the paint — as did the rest of the team. Fourteen out of the first 17 points came from inside the painted area, and it was clear what the formula was for the UC Davis squad.

Still, Cal Poly never folded, answering back and not letting the Aggies get away by taking advantage of the defensive lapses on the UC Davis side. At the break, the score stood at 27-24 — 22 of them coming inside the paint for the Aggies.

“I thought in the first half, we didn’t get to what we know we are communication-wise and playing team defense,” Fuller said postgame. “We knew the one thing we needed to do if we were going to win this game was to connect on defense.”

Fuller led the team with 10 points and added three rebounds as well. Pepper added six points and four rebounds of his own, but All-Big West First Teamer and star guard Ezra Manjon struggled in the first half, shooting 1-6 from the field. Still, it was a slow, tough defensive game that made it difficult for both teams to score easy buckets. 

The second half was more of the same, as the first points weren’t scored until 90 seconds went by on a Mustangs layup. The Aggies responded to that with three straight made shots by Manjon who made his slow start a thing of the past. Yet, Cal Poly continued to pressure the Aggies and kept it close as they approached 10 minutes left in regulation. With the game tied at 43, with 5:34 remaining in the game, UC Davis would outscore Cal Poly 20-10 for the remainder of the game to go on and win 63-53. 

Manjon finished as the leading scorer after a hot second half with 17 points in addition to three assists. Fuller finished with 16 points and eight boards and Pepper finished with 14 points and nine rebounds. As a team, the Aggies shot 40% from the field and had 11 turnovers but forced 17 Mustang turnovers. Cal Poly’s junior Trevon Taylor had an impressive game for the Mustangs with 20 points and eight rebounds, but their 4-19 shooting from beyond the arc as a team was too much to overcome. 

“Really proud of this group, especially in the second half,” Les said postgame. “They made big plays on both ends of the floor, they made the hustle plays, came up with the 50/50 balls and we knocked in free throws to close the game out.”

The win in the first round meant a chance at revenge against #2 Cal State Fullerton. Having had a game already in the books, UC Davis hoped their activity would be an edge that can put them over the top. 

The first five minutes were similar to the game they played in the regular season — intense. Down 7-8, a three pointer by Caleb Fuller sparked a 7-0 run that saw great paint defense and a fast pace leading to easy buckets. However, a 7-0 run of their own gave the Titans the lead back, as both teams continued to battle on the glass and on the defensive end. 

Tied at 19 with 7:23 remaining in the game, Cal State Fullerton finished the half outscoring UC Davis 18-8. The Aggies shot 3-14 in the final seven minutes of the first half while the Titans were 6-10 from the field in that same time frame. Caleb Fuller once again led them with 10 points, but the team as a whole shot 31% from the field in the first half. That, coupled with no free throw attempts led to the deficit. The end of the half was a brutal way for the Aggies to close, but similar to their game in the regular season, they hoped to come out strong in the second half. 

Anigwe got the scoring started in the second half just 13 seconds in, but the tough UC Davis shooting night continued. An 8-0 run after that by Cal State Fullerton pushed the Aggies’ deficit to a game-high 16, prompting a timeout by Coach Jim Les with 17:52 left in regulation. 

Following the timeout, UC Davis would strap down on defense, holding the Titans scoreless for over six minutes. Great perimeter defense and shutting down the paint allowed this scoreless drought to continue over a long period of time. But, despite holding Fullerton to no points, the Aggies only mustered eight points in that timeframe. They were able to get it down to single digits, but after a three pointer by the Titans broke the scoreless drought and brought their lead back up to 11, the Aggies would never make it single digits again. Cal State Fullerton would go on to win by a final score of 73-55. 

“I got to give a lot of credit to Coach [Dedrique] Taylor and Fullerton. I thought they played extremely well,” Les said after the loss. “Scored the ball well, contested a lot of our offensive opportunities. That’s a good basketball team.”

Caleb Fuller would lead the way in scoring for the Aggies in his final collegiate game for UC Davis with 13 points, four rebounds and three blocks. 

“If I could go four years back, I’d make the exact same decision,” Fuller said after the game. “I love playing under Coach Les. I’ve grown as a basketball player, and most importantly, as a man. I’m getting a little emotional speaking about it, but he knows I love this guy, and I love playing for this team.” 

Pepper would be the only other player in double digits with 12 and led the team with nine rebounds. Shooting-wise, UC Davis struggled from the field in both halves as Fullerton made it difficult for them to get easy shots, finishing at 21-66 (31.8%) and 6-25 from three. The tough shooting day was difficult to overcome when the Titans shot 11-19 from beyond the arc and had the edge in the fastbreak point department. 

“We did not play our best,” Les said. “And not playing our best against a good basketball team that was playing at a high level had us fighting uphill all night.” 

UC Davis finished the year with a 13-11 record overall and 5-6 in conference. With eight games canceled this season — all in conference — the team faced a lot of adversity but were able to make the most of it. With the loss of Fuller, Cameron Ba and B.J. Shaw, the Aggies will look to Manjon, Pepper, Anigwe and other big pieces to use their experience as they look to get UC Davis back to the top of the Big West and back into the NCAA Tournament.

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org

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