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UC Davis’ Elijah Pepper leads program to new heights

As the Aggies all-time leading scorer, Pepper is looking to carry this historic season into March

NCAA Basketball: UC Davis vs Sacramento State
UC Davis’ Elijah Pepper leads the Big West Conference in scoring with 21.1 PPG and has scored more than 2,000 career points.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

UC Davis guard Elijah Pepper made history on Jan. 20.

Coming off a well set screen at the low post just before the game’s first media timeout, Pepper found himself wide open outside the 3-point arc to receive a pass from teammate Kane Milling.

With space and time, Pepper did what he’s done all season and swished home a long-range three to push the Aggies ahead of UC Irvine 8-6.

While UC Davis won 54-52 behind his 14 points and five boards from the Aussie, this early basket marked 2,000 career points for him.

Surpassing that 2,000 point plateau, Pepper now sits fifth all-time for points scored in the Big West and is well atop UC Davis’ record books with the most points in program history.

“It means a lot to be in that position and to have that kind of opportunity,” Pepper said. “That wasn’t necessarily a goal of mine coming [to UC Davis], but I was able to stay here my entire career and I’ve been able to play well these last two years especially.”

An under recruited prospect out of Selah High School in Washington, according to Pepper, none of this would have been possible were it not for the relationship he developed with UC Davis head coach Jim Les.

Les took a chance on Pepper that forever changed the trajectory of this Aggies’ program.

“[Les] has meant a lot to me in my career,” Pepper said. “I think he’s a very large part of why I’ve been able to do so well. With a different coach, I may not be in the same situation and he’s a big part of why I stayed [at UC Davis] as well. I’m really grateful for him and how he’s developed me especially.”

Pepper earned back-to-back All-Big West Second Team selections in 2021 and 2022 before a step up to the All-Big West First Team in 2023, but that’s all in the past.

Now, in his final season of eligibility, Pepper is looking to do something even more historic than surpassing 2,000 career points: return UC Davis to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017.

Battling for a 12-8 record and a 7-2 start in the Big West, Pepper is averaging a conference-leading 21.1 PPG with the Aggies currently third in the conference standings.

Despite strong production, Pepper was not shy about the offseason work he’s put in to develop the weakest facets of his game.

“What [NBA scouts] told me was that I have two or three big [issues],” Pepper said. One of them was efficiency. Then, they wanted me to get my turnovers down. And then the third thing was just being in ‘Steph Curry shape’ is what they call it. You can play all day, run up and down the floor, you gotta be able to run everywhere.”

And it’s clear Pepper’s taken those criticisms to heart in order to make improvements. After shooting a career-worst 32% from 3-point land last season, he’s hitting at a rate just under 40% behind the arc and is managing a career-low 1.9 turnovers per game.

According to Pepper, it’s those small developments alongside the major contributors from his teammates that have led to just two losses in the Big West so far this season.

“[Our team is] all together,” he said. “We’ve got guys that have played together for at least one or two years, some guys even more. I think the camaraderie and being able to trust that our teammates are also going to make the right plays, it gives you confidence to go out there and just play hard.”

Looking to carry those dominant performances into the second half of the Big West campaign, Pepper said the Aggies have been able to rely heavily on an improved defensive unit this season.

“The big thing has been our defense,” Pepper said. “I don’t think it’s been this good at least since I’ve been here. In those games when we’re struggling, our defense has kept us in it and has helped us to win those super close games where maybe we aren’t shooting our best.”

Now heading into the final stretch of his college basketball career, Pepper reflected on how everybody wanted to cover the “kid in the goggles” before they knew about his upbringing.

“My dad and my uncle both played pro [basketball] in Australia, so the scoring is a little bit in the genes,” Pepper said. “I had nerdy glasses as a little kid and eventually, I got the sports glasses. So there were times we’d play AAU and guys would be like ‘oh, I’ve got the kid in the goggles’ and then I’d go out there and play and they’d ask for a switch.”

With Pepper holding UC Davis’ career scoring title, nobody is excited about the prospect of having to guard him today.