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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Highlanders end UC Davis’s four-game win streak

The Aggies’ lack of defensive adjustments in final moments cost them the game


By MARLON ROLON — sports@theaggie.org


UC Davis Men’s Basketball Head Coach Jim Les has preached about taking care of the ball and making defensive stops over the course of the season. Last Thursday night at the University Credit Union Center, the Aggies did that for 39 minutes of play — until the last minute of the game. 

“We had a couple of defensive lapses there at the end that ended up being the difference,” Les said. “We have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot at the end of the half and the end of the game.”

The Aggies contained UC Riverside fourth-year guard Zyon Pullin — who is tied for second in scoring in the Big West this season — to eight points throughout the game, but Pullin couldn’t be stopped when it mattered most. Pullin drove the ball into the paint and scored the game-winning shot with 2.4 seconds remaining, giving the Highlanders the 74-72 win. 

“We wanted to force them to the left at the end, but he managed to drive to the right, which is his strength,” Les said. “They made one more play than we did.”

UC Davis (4-3 in conference play, 11-8 overall) ranks No. 10 in defense out of 11 teams in the Big West, and it was evident on Thursday night. However, they have a strong offense that ranks second in the conference, which kept them in the game against the top-seeded UC Riverside (7-1 in conference play, 14-6 overall). 

Three of the five starters scored in double digits for the Aggies. Fourth-year forward Christian Anigwe had 22 points along with seven rebounds, hird-year guard Elijah Pepper — who leads the Big West in scoring — had 19 points with six rebounds and Ty Johnson added 13 points and six rebounds. 

“He’s our hardest worker and he’s been a really good vocal leader,” Les said about Pepper. “He sets an example every day in the classroom, in the weight room, out on the practice floor; it’s what we want Aggie basketball to look like.”

The Aggies got off to a strong start in the opening half, leading 11-4. Four Aggies contributed to that run — Anigwe, Pepper, second-year guard Leo DeBruh and third-year guard Kane Milling, who scored five points in 45 seconds.

The lead didn’t last long, though. UC Riverside stormed back with a 7-0 run to tie the game, 11-11. The Aggies were careless with the basketball, committing eight turnovers in the first half. The Highlanders took advantage of the miscues from the home team, leading to a 31-24 lead with two minutes remaining in the first half. 

Johnson — who is in seventh place in scoring in the Big West — struggled early with three turnovers. He shot 1-for-6 in 13 minutes of the first half, scoring a lone three-pointer. Johnson seemed visibly frustrated with his play, prompting Les to rotate substitution players often early on. 

Those substitutions worked out well for the Aggies, with the bench scoring 12 points in the first half. Eight of those points came from Milling, who shot efficiently with his limited opportunities. DeBruhl, another rotational player from the bench, scored a layup off a fastbreak that helped cut the Aggies’ deficit to five. 

However, graduate student guard Flynn Cameron quickly answered back for the Highlanders with a layup. Cameron scored 10 points and added five rebounds in the first half, and the Aggies had a hard time defending the elusive player. Luckily for the Aggies, Pepper ended the half with a fastbreak, which provided some much-needed momentum and fired up the home crowd. 

That momentum translated into the second half. Anigwe was on fire, scoring seven straight points for the Aggies to bring the score within two. A few plays later, Anigwe was fouled and converted one of two free throws, which gave UC Davis a one-point lead, 38-37.

The Highlanders’ depth proved to be the differentiating factor in the game though, even with Pullin locked down by the Aggie defense. Second-unit player and graduate student guard Jamal Hartwell II put up 14 points and Cameron added nine points for UC Riverside. The teams traded leads for the majority of the second half until UC Riverside pulled away, making the score 68-62 with three minutes remaining. 

The Aggies tried to battle back, with Pepper and Johnson adding eight points for UC Davis. Anigwe had a chance to put the Aggies ahead at the free-throw line but only made one of two shots, leaving the game tied at 70 with a minute and a half to play. 

At this point, the intensity of the game brought the crowd to their feet. The Highlanders hit a layup to go up by two, the Aggies answered back with a layup by Pepper with just 18 seconds left.

Tied at 72-72, UC Riverside put the ball in Pullin’s hands, who hit the game-winner in the final sequence. UC Davis only had two seconds to get a shot off; Pepper attempted a half-court shot with two defenders on him but he did not get a good look and the Aggies lost in heartbreaking fashion. 

Anigwe scored 18 points in the second half and teammates Johnson and Pepper both added 10 points apiece. 

UC Davis will have an opportunity to right the ship against Cal Poly on Jan. 21 in Davis. 

“The nice part about this is we have about 12 hours to think about this one, and then we get back at it with Cal Poly,” Les said. “If we can learn from our mistakes and get better, we can be a pretty good basketball team.”

The Aggies took down Cal Poly on Saturday with a 65-63 win. On Thursday, they’ll face CSU Bakersfield on the road.

Written by: Marlon Rolon — sports@theaggie.org