Pepper, UC Davis holds off furious Hawai’i comeback attempt to advance to Big West championship

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED MAR 15, 2024

Too little, too late. 

After falling down by as much as 17 in the 2nd half, fifth-seeded Hawai’i gave second-seeded UC Davis a scare in the final minutes as the ‘Bows had a shot to take the lead with five seconds to play that bounced off back iron, allowing the Aggies to escape to Saturday’s Big West Tournament championship against Long Beach State. 

Hawai’i, coming off a 75-68 victory over #7 CSUN on Thursday, started slowly as UC Davis raced out to an 11-2 lead out of the gates behind the hot shooting of the three-guard lineup of Kane Milling, Ty Johnson and Big West Player of the Year winner Elijah Pepper. The Aggies continued to flex the offensive fire power by hitting nine of the first 12 attempts from the field en route to a 20-6 lead after eight minutes of action. 

The ‘Bows shook off the slow start to stick around, cutting the UC Davis lead to three with a 18-7 run over the next four minutes of game action behind a litany of Rainbow Warriors finding their touch from the field as UH drilled a pair of triples and attacked the rim far better than early on. 

Back-to-back Munoz 3-pointers brought Hawai’i within two and the 8th-year guard whipped a pass to Bernardo de Silva for a two-handed dunk to end the opening half keeping UH down a pair, 31-29. 

The 2nd half began similar to the first for Hawai’i, watching another sizzling UC Davis offensive spurt with a 17-2 run out of the break leading to a game-high 17-point lead for the Aggies after Pablo Tamba finished an alley-oop lob from Elijah Pepper with 13:57 left to play. 

Following a 30-second timeout from head coach Eran Ganot, Hawai’i’s offense settled once again as Ryan Rapp drained a straight away triple for the ‘Bows first field goal of the 2nd half. Justin McKoy scored the next four points before Munoz drilled another 3-pointer for Hawai’i, but UH continued struggling getting stops against UC Davis as the margin remained 17 through the 10:47 mark of the 2nd half. 

A 7-0 Hawai’i run in a blink of an eye brought the ‘Bows back within ten after Akira Jacobs drilled his 2nd 3-pointer of the evening before making his third and fourth foul shots of the season to make it 58-48 UC Davis with 8:31 left to play. While the deficit remained around double-digits until the three-minute mark for Hawai’i, the ‘Bows had their swagger back for one last push for an upset in the semifinals. 

Six consecutive makes from the free throw line for UH brought Hawai’i within four, 66-62, with 1:17 left in regulation before Pepper lost the ball off his leg to give the ‘Bows a chance to cut it to a one-possession game with more than a minute left. 

Ty Johnson came up with a clutch strip on McKoy’s drive on the next possession, keeping the two-possession lead for UC Davis while the Aggies drained every second off of the clock possible. After Hawai’i forced a shot clock violation, McClanahan powered through contact for an and-one at the rim that brought UH within one, 66-65, with 27 seconds to play. 

Without any timeouts, the Rainbow Warriors came up with a steal at midcourt as Noel Coleman jumped a passing lane to provide the go-ahead chance to Hawai’i but McClanhan’s stepback jumper from the left elbow bounced off back rim and Justin McKoy was called for a loose-ball foul as the ‘Bows fell in the semifinals, 68-65. 

UC Davis All-Big West 1st team selection and conference Player of the Year Elijah Pepper willed the Aggies to victory down the stretch, pouring in a game-high 25 points on 10-of-23 shooting with 17 points coming in the final 20 minutes. Kane Milling followed behind with 14 points and seven rebounds in 34 minutes of action while Ty Johnson added 12 points and five dimes in the victory for UC Davis. 

Hawai’i was led by Bernardo de Silva’s 14 points in 34 minutes, making 5-of-6 FG attempts and going 4-for-6 at the charity stripe in the loss. Juan Munoz and Justin McKoy were the other two Rainbow Warriors in double figures, finishing with 11 and 10 points respectively. 

JoVon McClanahan added nine points off the bench for Hawai’i, going 7-for-7 at the free throw line and nearly adding one final buzzer-beating memory to his UH ledger as his jumper went awry for the ‘Bows at the end.  

Freshman Akira Jacobs matched a season-high with eight points and a pair of 3-pointers while Tom Beattie provided physical defense across 31 minutes and chipped in a bucket in the ‘Bows loss. 

Hawai’i now discusses postseason options for a large graduating class of six seniors, considering joining the College Basketball Invitational tournament, a single-elimination tournament featuring 16 teams that were not selected to the NCAA Tournament or NIT. Teams participating in the CBI pay a $27,500 entry fee for playing in the tournament.