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HomeSportsBasketballUC Davis MBB Edges Hawaii 68-65 To Advance to Big West Final

UC Davis MBB Edges Hawaii 68-65 To Advance to Big West Final

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The UC Davis Men’s Basketball team (20-12, 14-6) defeated the University of Hawai‘i Rainbow Warriors (20-14, 11-9) 68-65 in the semifinals of the 2024 Hercules Tires Men’s Basketball Championships at the Dollar Loan Center Arena in Henderson, Nev. The Aggies advance to the final on Saturday, March 16 at 6:30 p.m. PST against Long Beach State.

The Aggies came out the gates on fire, jumping to an 11-2 lead led by five points from Big West Player of the Year and senior guard Elijah Pepper. Multiple buckets from junior guard Ty Johnson and a pull-up jumper from senior guard Kane Milling capped off the run. 

Moving forward, the Aggies did not let their foot off the gas. A 9-0 run propelled them to a 22-6 lead capped off by a layup from senior wing Ade Adebayo. A bucket from Hawai’i senior forward Bernardo da Silva finally ended the Warriors’ cold streak. 

The Warriors crawled back with a 6-0 run, cutting the lead to 22-12 after two free throws from graduate guard Juan Munoz. Another 6-0 run from Hawai’i cut the UC Davis lead to six, capped off by a layup from graduate forward Justin McKoy. 

A three-pointer from Pepper silenced the Hawai’i run, putting the Aggies back up nine. However, Hawai’i answered with back-to-back three-pointers from freshman forward Akira Jacobs and Munoz, cutting the Aggies lead to three.

UC Davis answered the run with a second-chance bucket from Milling; however, another timely three-pointer from Munoz cut the lead to two with two minutes left in the first half. Two free throws from Johnson increased the Aggies lead to 31-27, although a last-second dunk from da Silva cut the Aggies lead to two going into the halftime break. 

At the half, UC Davis held an 18-14 rebounding advantage, shooting 39% from the field to Hawai‘i’s 47.8%. The Aggies collected 10 points off Hawai‘i’s seven turnovers, while Hawai’i totaled just two points off Davis’ three turnovers. 

The Aggies got the second half started with an and-one bucket from Adebayo, increasing their lead to five. Two free throws from Johnson and a jumper from Pepper capped a 7-0 Aggies run to take a 38-29 lead. The Aggies stifling defense controlled the second half, propelling another 8-0 Aggies run capped off by a dunk by junior forward/wing Pablo Tamba to put them ahead by 17, their largest lead of the game.

Hawai’i finally stopped the bleeding with a three-pointer from junior guard Ryan Rapp. The Rainbow Warriors fought back, cutting the Aggies lead to 13, but another three-pointer from Pepper pushed the advantage back up to 16. 

Both teams traded baskets until a 7-0 spurt from Hawai’i forced a UC Davis timeout. A three-pointer and two free throws from Jacobs capped the run as the Warriors cut the lead to 48-58. 

A pull-up jumper from Pepper temporarily stopped the bleeding; however, back-to-back Hawai’i buckets from senior guard Noel Coleman and da Silva cut the UC Davis lead to eight, 52-60.

Another two free throws from Johnson and a turnaround jumper from Pepper increased the UCD lead to 64-52. Both teams went cold, going over three minutes without a single field goal. 

Hawai’i turned up the intensity in the final minutes with their season on the line. Following another jumper by Pepper, the Rainbow Warriors attacked the rim, connecting on four freethrow attempts on ensuing possessions to cut the lead to six, 66-60, with one and a half minutes remaining. 

After a UC Davis missed dunk, Hawai’i got to the line again, this time with McKoy connecting on two free throws to cut the lead to four. On the ensuing possession for UC Davis, the Hawai’i defense forced yet another turnover. However, a steal from UC Davis gave them the ball back. The Aggies waited down the shot clock to zero, failing to get off a shot and giving the ball back to the Warriors with 37 seconds left. 

On the ensuing possession, Hawai’i senior guard JoVon McClanahan had a huge drive to the basket, completing the and-one layup to cut the lead to one, 66-65. A huge steal from Coleman on the next possession gave Hawai’i a chance to win it. McClanahan put up a stepback jumper with four seconds left hitting the back of the rim, and McKoy was called for an over-the-back foul on the rebound.

Pepper knocked down two free throws for UC Davis with two seconds left, and following a Hawai’i turnover on the in-bounds play, the Aggies locked up a 68-65 victory. 

Pepper led the way for the Aggies with 25 points, while Milling tallied with 14 and Johnson added 12. UC Davis will play for a chance to compete in the NCAA tournament on Saturday, March 16 at 6:30 p.m. in the Big West Conference title game against Long Beach State.

UC Davis head coach Jim Les spoke in the post-game press conference about his team’s resiliency and ability to keep their composure, despite numerous late runs from Hawai’i. 

“We knew they were gonna keep coming. And we knew on this journey it was not going to be easy. But I love the resiliency of our group. It wasn’t perfect. It’s never going to be perfect. But I love the toughness of these guys and especially these seniors who [are] not done yet, and I’m excited for that,” Les said.

Pepper added his thoughts on the team’s ability to stay poised and together throughout the game.

“A big thing we do is we just focus and take a deep breath and remember you’re living in the moment,” Pepper said in the postgame press conference.

Milling also added that his team feels the need to come together during big moments and regroup as a way of coping with the high tensions of a game. 

“As a group, we have this thing where [with] every dead ball we come together. We talk a little bit and then somebody says ‘ready, ready,’ and everybody has to clap at the same time. There’s just a sort of unity.,” Milling said in the postgame press conference. 

James Huston is a Sports Co-Editor. He can be reached at hustonj@uci.edu 

Edited by Harleen Thandi, Jeanette Wallis, and Laiyla Santillan