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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Dynamic duo Pepper and Johnson lead UC Davis men’s basketball to victory over University of Hawai’i

Pepper has scored more than 27 points in seven games this season

 

By MARLON ROLON — sports@theaggie.org

 

The UC Davis men’s basketball team’s third-year guard Elijah Pepper and second-year point guard Ty Johnson are considered one of the best back-court duos in the Big West. The two combined for 51 points at the University Credit Union Center on Thursday night, helping the Aggies get the 75-63 win against the University of Hawai’i.

With the win, the Aggies split the season series against the Rainbow Warriors and are tied for fourth place in the Big West Conference with nine games remaining on the schedule. 

UC Davis enjoyed their best shooting night of the season, shooting 63.6% (28-for-44) in front of 1,961 fans. The home crowd was treated to a 29-point performance from Pepper and 22 from Johnson. 

“The crowd was great,” Pepper said after the game. “They really energized us.”

Although Aggie fans were cheering for most of the game, Hawai’i did not seem intimidated, as they got off to an early lead in the first half. Fourth-year forward Kamaka Hepa recorded his first three-pointer early in the first half which put the Rainbow Warriors up 12-8. 

UC Davis responded quickly, going on a 5-0 run with a layup from Pepper layup and a three-pointer from atop the key from third-year guard Kane Milling that put the Aggies in the lead, 13-12. 

However, Hawai’i’s defense put the Aggies on their heels, forcing them to turn the ball over early in the half. The visitors used their defense to gain possession of the ball and went on a 10-2 run; third-year point guard JoVon McClanahan put up seven points in less than a minute for the Rainbow Warriors. 

With 7:33 remaining on the clock, the Rainbow Warriors led by nine, 28-19. It appeared that Hawai’i was too much for the Aggies to handle with their tough defense and the ability to space the floor, find the open man and knock down shots. But, with the clock winding down in the final minutes of the first half, Pepper and Johnson decided to take over the game at the right time. 

Johnson buried a three-pointer that got the crowd on their feet. Pepper immediately followed up with a quick layup after the visitors missed their shot. Third-year guard Noel Coleman answered back by driving into the paint for a quick two, putting his team up by six points, 32-24 with 5:33 remaining. 

However, the highlight of the night came after a steal as Johnson sprinted down the court for a one-handed jam that brought the fans to their feet. This play electrified the arena and the momentum quickly shifted. UC Davis would go on a 13-2 run with Pepper hitting a jumper at the buzzer to end the first half. The 13-2 run helped the Aggies take control of the game. The score was 37-31 at halftime, with Pepper scoring seven points and Johnson dunking, which fueled the comeback.  

“Defenses are designed to stop [Pepper], and he still figures out a way,” said UC Davis Head Coach Jim Les. “[Pepper’s] an elite competitor and the hardest worker on the team, nobody wants to let him down.”

Pepper finished the half with 15 points; behind him was Johnson who tallied 11. The home team shot 60% from the three-point line, while Hawaii shot 36%.

Although UC Davis gained control of the game and took a commanding lead at the end of the first half, fourth-year forward Christian Anigwe, a key figure on the roster, went down in the last six minutes of the half. It seemed like a serious injury, as he did not return. Les was forced to rotate in second-year center Francesco Borra and second-year forward Niko Rocak to compensate for the loss of Anigwe’s presence inside the paint. 

Pepper got the second half started with a nice assist and found Borra for a hook shot as the Aggies continued to roll. In the 17th minute, UC Davis took advantage of a Hawai’i turnover as third-year guard Ade Adebayo scored a layup off a fastbreak and made it a 10-point lead, 45-35.

A few plays later, the Aggies expanded the lead to 14. Milling forced the steal and quickly found Johnson, who drove down the lane and was fouled, gaining two free throws. 

The Rainbow Warriors tried to claw back into the game in the last eight minutes of play, cutting the lead to eight points, at 60-52. In the next possession, though, the Aggies turned the ball over with a sloppy pass, but Johnson recovered the ball off a steal. UC Davis spread the ball around, and Pepper found Milling for an open-look three-pointer which he buried and put the home team up by 11.

“I liked our ball movement where guys were passing up a good shot to take a great shot,” Les said. “That comes from working hard in practice. Our practices have had great integrity and have been very solid. We’re getting contributions from a lot of people and that’s really paying off.”

The Rainbow Warriors would not recover from the Aggies’ offensive onslaught. In the final minute of play, Pepper sealed the deal with a stepback jumper to put UC Davis up by 16. Hawai’i finished the game by scoring the last four points in the game and fell to the Aggies, 75-63. 

Pepper and Johnson combined for 25 points in the second half, proving that they are more than capable of handling a top-two defensive team in the Big West Conference. 

“Our mindset is to just be aggressive, and we’ve really gelled at this point. Everything is clicking on and off the court,” Pepper said of the overall team chemistry. 

UC Davis holds two players in the top four in scoring in the conference: Pepper, leading all scorers and averaging 20.4 points per game (PPG) and Johnson, in fourth and averaging 16.3 PPG. Their offense is ranked third in the conference, but their defense is ranked ninth out of 11 teams. Still, with nine games remaining in the regular season, the top seed is up for grabs — and would be an advantage going into the postseason, since the No. 1 seed gets a bye in the first round of the playoffs.

The Aggies improved their overall record to 14-9 overall and 7-4 in conference play. UC Santa Barbara is in first place with an overall record of 18-3 and 9-1 in conference play, UC Irvine is in second place with a record of 15-7 and 8-2 in the conference, UC Riverside follows up in third place with a record of 15-8 and 8-3 in conference play while UC Davis is tied with Hawai’i for fourth place. 

The Aggies have their hands full with the upcoming fixtures; they go on the road to Riverside on Feb. 9 and then travel to Santa Barbara to play the Gauchos on Feb. 15. These next two games will be telling, as the UC Davis offense will be put to the test against contenders that can potentially win the Big West Championship. 

Written by: Marlon Rolon — sports@theaggie.org