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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Elijah Pepper’s 32 points help UC Davis triumph over CSU Northridge

With five games remaining on the schedule, the Aggies look to close out the season strong as they eye the Big West postseason

 

By MARLON ROLON — sports@theaggie.org

 

The Aggies struggled against Big West Conference foe CSU Northridge but ultimately tamed the Matadors late in the game (73-62) in front of the home crowd Wednesday night at the University Credit Union Center. The team struggled in part because they were without second-year starting point guard Ty Johnson due to a one-game suspension, but Head Coach Jim Les said that a lackluster performance by the team’s defense also contributed.

“I wasn’t pleased overall,” said Les. “Our defensive effort just wasn’t there. At the end of the day, you have to show some pride and some desire. We had some spurts, but we have to get better.”

The Matadors (6-20 overall, 3-12 in conference play) threatened the Aggies’ defense with their scoring abilities, particularly from second-year guard Atin Wright, who set a division one scoring record for CSU Northridge’s basketball program. Wright scored 28 points in the first half, shooting 6-for-8 from the three-point line. He finished with 42 points, shooting 14-for-25 from the field and 7-for-11 outside of the paint.

“Atin shot the ball well, he was efficient,” said CSU Northridge Head Coach Trent Johnson. “For us, we had a great opportunity, two of their best players, Beasley and Johnson, didn’t play. As a team, we didn’t defend very well.”

Wright wasn’t the only player who had the hot hand though. UC Davis third-year Elijah Pepper recorded his third consecutive game with more than 30 points. Two other Aggies finished the game with double figures — third-year guard Kane Milling scored 15 points, and fourth-year forward Christian Anigwe had a nice night with a double-double, 15 points and 10 rebounds. Subbing in in place of Johnson, second-year point guard Leo DeBruhl added eight points and six rebounds in a strong effort that helped the offensive flow. 

“I thought he did a really nice job,” Les said of DeBruhl. “We have a lot of confidence in him.”

UC Davis opened the first half with a 6-0 run within the first three minutes, but Wright immediately got going, scoring two three-pointers to tie the game at sixes. 

“We gave him two wide-open looks, and that got him going,” Les said.

A few plays later, the Matadors took the lead, capitalizing on a five-point run. Wright added to that run with another three-pointer as Northridge took command of the game with an 11-8 lead. 

After a jumper from Pepper that cut the deficit to one, Wright hit another three-pointer which added to their 14-4 run. Wright was responsible for hitting four three-pointers within the first six minutes of the game, and just like that, Northridge led 14-10. 

The Aggies did not expect the outburst from Wright, who seemed to score every ball he shot. This prompted the Big West’s leading scorer — Pepper, who is averaging 22.1 points per game — to respond.

Pepper is known for his three-point shooting abilities, but uncharacteristically bull-rushed his way inside the paint, scoring over Northridge’s big men in the first quarter. Then, a few plays later, the Aggies took the lead with three-pointers from Milling and Pepper that put the home team up 21-8.

But of course, Wright would not let off the gas, scoring a pair of free-throws and a jumper that cut the deficit to one with just over four minutes remaining in the first half. 

Both offenses traded buckets, giving the UC Davis fans a spectacle. Milling once again pulled up from downtown and splashed a three-pointer that energized the home crowd as Milling put his team up by four points. The Aggie defense held off the Matadors in the following play and rebounded the ball, allowing Pepper another shot. He was fouled in the process and converted both free-throw attempts, helping the Aggies quickly build a six-point lead, 30-24. 

With two-and-a-half minutes remaining on the clock, Wright quickly hit a three-pointer that kept his team within striking distance, but Pepper seemed to be motivated by Wright’s offensive onslaught, hitting two three-pointers, one of which was a four-point play, as he was fouled during the shot. 

The Aggies appeared to run away with the game at this point, as they were up 37-29 with over a minute remaining in the first half, but Wright would go on a 5-0 run himself. Luckily for The Aggies, who did not have a strong defense, Anigwe closed the half with a monstrous dunk that got the crowd on their feet and brought UC Davis into the second half with a 39-34 advantage. 

Astonishingly, Wright scored 28 of the 34 points scored for the Matadors in the first half. Pepper scored 20 of UC Davis’s points in the half, while Anigwe scored 10 points. The difference in the first half was the Aggies’ ability to control the paint, grabbing 20 rebounds compared to Northridge’s 13. Another eye-opening stat: UC Davis’s bench produced 18 points while Northridge’s only produced four.

UC Davis opened the second half with a 9-4 run, and they finally seemed to have an answer for Wright, who didn’t score a bucket within the first six minutes of the second half. However, the Matadors were able to produce a 6-0 run that cut the Aggie lead 48-44. 

The Aggies immediately responded, scoring 11 straight points that put them up by 15 points as they pulled away 59-44. UC Davis tightened up their defense and Wright stopped scoring. Without him, Northridge lacked offensive rhythm and could not hit any shots. 

With just eight minutes left on the clock, Wright broke through the Aggie defense when the Matadors needed him most. The visiting team went on a 14-2 run, bringing them within three points of the lead.. Wright contributed to 12 of those 14 points scored. 

The swing in momentum seemed to favor Northridge, and Pepper’s rhythm appeared to be off, but Milling and DeBruhl kept the Aggies’ offense going. Both players combined for 11 straight points and once again the Aggies were in control, 70-58 with only two-and-a-half minutes remaining in regulation. 

The Matadors could not recover with such little time on the clock and Pepper put the game to rest, scoring the last six points for UC Davis and closing the show, 73-62.

A few days later, on Feb. 18, the Aggies traveled to Southern California to face off against the top team in the conference, UC Irvine, and lost in a closely contested battle, 78-76. Once again, Pepper shined with 32 points, making it his fourth consecutive game with at least 30 points. Anigwe contributed with 17 points, as he continues to impress in his best season under the UC Davis logo. 

On Monday, Feb. 20 UC Davis hosted UC San Diego and defeated the Tritons, 76-66. The Aggies now improve to 16-2 overall and 9-7 in conference play. In their next outing, they will travel to Cal State Fullerton on Feb. 23. 

Written by: Marlon Rolon — sports@theaggie.org