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UCI Men’s Basketball Survive a Thriller at the Bren Against UC Davis, 78-76

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After capturing the No. 1 spot in the Big West Conference standings with a victory over UC Santa Barbara, the UC Irvine’s Men’s Basketball team (17-9, 12-3) defeated the UC Davis Aggies (15-11, 8-6) 78-76 at the Bren Events Center on Saturday, Feb. 18.

It was a battle of the big men to start the game, with UCI sophomore center Bent Leuchten and UC Davis senior forward Christian Anigwe duking it out. Anigwe chalked up three blocks in the first five minutes. However, Leuchten managed to get two big offensive rebounds, one he put back up and in himself, and another he passed to a driving Baker who converted on an and-one bucket drawing the UC Davis foul.

UCI senior guard Pierre Crockrell II made a cross-court pass to junior guard DJ Davis, who had an easy layup to put the Anteaters up 8-2. Redshirt freshman forward Akiva McBirney-Griffin followed up the bucket with a monstrous putback dunk causing the Bren to erupt with cheers, increasing the UCI lead to 10-2. 

The Irvine lead diminished quickly when two straight offensive boards by the ‘Eaters led to no points because of the rim protection of Anigwe. The Aggies then pushed the ball in transition, passing it to their star junior guard Elijah Pepper for a three, cutting the lead to 12-9 with 12 minutes left in the half.

Crockrell found his scoring touch as he got two straight buckets in the paint, the latter being a slick finger roll after blowing by his defender to make the score 21-18 ‘Eaters. Redshirt senior forward JC Butler had a great chance for a bucket in transition, but Pepper sprinted back out of nowhere, denying the layup attempt. 

However, the Anteaters immediately got another chance at transition points, this time with Davis converting a tough and-one layup over Pepper while drawing a foul. 

Baker was also starting to heat up for the ‘Eaters after a relatively cold start as he gained some confidence draining a nice stepback three, extending the Anteater lead to 29-20 with five minutes left in the first half. 

The ‘Eaters dominated at the end of the first half, with another Baker stepback three giving UCI a 12-point lead at 35-23. A last second layup by Pepper ended the second half with UCI leading 39-31.

The start of the second half was a passing clinic for UCI with great assists leading to easy buckets in the paint. Redshirt sophomore forward Devin Tillis got things started with two dishes to Leuchten, the first leading to a three while the second leading to  a wide-open layup. Leuchten extended the ‘Eater lead to 46-35, hitting Crockrell II on the cut for a backdoor layup. The tables turned with Cockrell assisting Leuchten’s layup down low. Leuchten also became a force on the other end, notching two blocks in the first five minutes of the second half.

Team fouls were a big problem for UCI early in the second half, as they received five team fouls in the first five minutes. A nagging problem that has been present all season for the ‘Eaters has been defensive rebounding as UCI was careless on the glass, with Anigwe grabbing an offensive board which led to an and-one conversion, cutting the lead to 50-42 with 15 minutes remaining. 

Pepper put on a show for UC Davis in the second half, as he hit three three-pointers in a span of two minutes which gave UC Davis their first lead since the first minutes of the game. 

With the game entering a stalemate at 57-57 with eight minutes left, Irvine’s backcourt duo of Baker and Davis took over. Baker hit another one of his signature step back three pointers, followed by a pull up jumper giving UCI back the lead at 62-60. 

However, each Irvine score was answered back by the Aggies — with both teams exchanging blows until the last minute — until Davis blew the roof off of the Bren with an ankle-breaking dribble, freeing him up for a huge three pointer to give UCI a 75-71 lead with two minutes left. Again, the Aggies didn’t back down with a wide open corner three from sophomore guard Leo DeBruhl, cutting the UCI lead to one.

A foul from UC Davis put Davis at the free throw line for the Anteaters, and he connected on both shots, giving UCI a 77-74 lead with a minute left. UC Davis sophomore guard Ty Johnson connected on an easy layup to cut the lead back to just one point. 

A crucial offensive rebound by the ‘Eaters followed by quick passes to chew out the clock forced a foul from the Aggies. Tillis made one of two from the line giving UC Davis a chance down two with two seconds left. Their half-court heave attempt at the buzzer was unsuccessful, giving UCI a 78-76 victory. 

Miguel Rodriguez is a Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at