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Davis, California

Friday, July 12, 2024

The Aggies fall to the Highlanders in Men’s Big West Conference tournament

The loss featured shooting struggles and turnovers but also a major milestone for guard Elijah Pepper 


By PATRICK FIGUEROA — sports@theaggie.org


The Aggies struggled in their one and only game during the Big West Conference Tournament in Henderson, Nevada last weekend, losing to the UC Riverside Highlanders (68-52). The season-ending loss eliminates the Aggies from the tournament. 

The Aggies had a hard time making shots throughout this game. They shot 34% from the field and did not make a single three-pointer in the first half. UC Davis averaged 34% from the three-point line in the regular season but only made one three-pointer out of 16 attempts in the entire game. UC Davis Head Coach Jim Les attributed this to the Highlanders’ physicality throughout the game. 

“I just thought that their overall physicality was really good and they were putting bodies on us,” Les said when asked what the Highlanders did to make it difficult to score. “I thought they contested. They hard contested every look. We got very few open looks, and you know when a team is that aggressive and physical, I thought we got sped up a little bit. Any open opportunities we did have, I thought we rushed them, but then that’s a credit to them and their defense.” 

The Highlanders also struggled to shoot from three in the first half, as they made only two of their 10 three-ponter attempts. This contributed to a low-scoring first half, after which the Highlanders led 28-24. However, in the second half, the Highlanders made seven out of 13 three-pointers, allowing them to pull away from the Aggies. Surprisingly, this was not part of the Highlanders’ game plan. 

“Well, you know what’s funny is we wanted to pound the paint,” Highlanders Head Coach Mike Magpayo said when asked about the three-point shots’ role in his game plan. “Of course we’re a good three-point shooting team, but we wanted to pound the paint. It sucked in their defense, and we found some open guys.”

Both teams had their fair share of turnovers, but the Aggies had 12 costly turnovers that slowed them down in the first half. This included multiple errant passes that were the result of  miscommunication and risky decision-making. They finished the game with 17 turnovers, but they managed to stay in the game until the second half because their defense forced 14 turnovers in the game.

The second half began with an offensive explosion that saw the Highlanders take a 37-30 lead. Aggies second-year guard Robby Beasley made the Aggies’ only three-pointer to cut the lead to 37-33, but the Highlanders’ offense continued to pile on. Several Highlanders’ players, including first-year guard Nate Pickens and second-year forward Luke Turner, made three-pointers that extended the Highlanders’ lead to 19 points (61-42) with six minutes left in the game. 

Late in the game, star third-year guard Elijah Pepper, who broke the team’s single-season scoring record with over 600 points earlier this season, hit a career milestone that was a bright spot for the Aggies. Pepper reached 1,600 career points with just over four-and-a-half minutes left. He added another two points in the last minute of the game for a total of 1,602 career points at the end of the season. Pepper finished the game with 22 points, but he shot just 38% from the field (7 out of 18). However, this is in part because the Highlanders’ defensive game plan included containing Pepper. 

“We tried to protect the paint. We tried to bring bodies [to Pepper],” Magpayo said. “It’s really hard. He’s kicked our butts, but luckily we found a way to survive and today this was probably the best job we’ve done of all three games this year.”

Magpayo also gave credit to his guards, including Pickens, graduate student Flynn Cameron and fourth-year Zyon Pullin for their defensive success against Pepper and the Aggies. 

When asked about recruiting Pepper and if he knew how special of a player Pepper would become, Les said, “I had an inkling. I’d like to say I knew but what I love about him is how hard he works [and] his competitive spirit. Those right there give you a chance to be successful and then add the fact he’s awfully skilled. It’s a lethal combination.” 

Les added that Pepper has been a joy to coach and a fun player to have as an Aggie. 

Pepper made the Big West All-Conference first team for his performance this season. This was the second time he made a Big West All-Conference team; he made the Big West All-Conference second team last season. By achieving several accolades and milestones, there is no doubt that Pepper has been one of the most impactful players for UC Davis in his time here. 

Despite the disappointing end to their season, the Aggies received a round of applause from their fans who had traveled to Henderson to watch them play. The 2022-2023 college basketball season was a memorable one for the Aggies. There are several moments throughout the season that will not be forgotten: beating UC Berkeley for the first time in program history, beating Cal Poly with a 13-point comeback in the last four minutes of the game and beating Long Beach State in double overtime to clinch a first-round bye for the Big West Conference Tournament. These are the moments that will be remembered from this season. 


Written by: Patrick Figueroa — sports@theaggie.org