While you were out: Matadors are first, undefeated in Big West

Alonso Tacanga

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Once finals’ week was done, so were most of the Matadors’ rivals.

The Northridge men’s basketball team went 7-1 over the winter break span, defeating Big West Conference rivals Santa Barbara, Cal Poly, Pacific, UC Davis and Riverside, for a 5-0 start in conference play.

Their 13-3 overall record is CSUN’s best since the 1981-82 Matadors started the season 13-2.

“It’s been a blessing,” said head coach Bobby Braswell.

The Matadors’ recent success hasn’t come easy, though. They had to overcome deficits in four of those victories, with the biggest being a 13-point second-half hole at Santa Barbara.

“It was a tough game,” said team captain Jonathan Heard, who had 12 points in the game. “But, we kept chopping at their lead. We kept fighting and it was one of our biggest wins. We showed our true colors. On any given night we can beat any team.”

The Gauchos were picked to finish first (Northridge was sixth) in the Big West by a preseason coaches’ and media poll; and up to the 16:52 second-half mark with Santa Barbara leading 54-41, the poll’s forecast looked fitting.

In came junior guard Deon Tresvant.

Tresvant, the Matadors’ star reserve and leading scorer, made five 3-pointers in a 13-minute span to spark Northridge’s 88-84 comeback win against their northern peers. His season-high 31 points helped deliver a first blow to those preseason picks.

“My job is to get the team going,” said Tresvant, a new addition for the Matadors this season. “They did an excellent job of finding me and I was able to hit those big shots. Once I started hitting those, the whole team’s confidence went up. We started to come together as a team and we came away with the win.”

The win came just a few days after Northridge had dismantled Cal Poly, another preseason favorite, 80-59 at San Luis Obispo. Heard paced the Matadors with 17 points and Tresvant had 16 for the game.

But perhaps the most rewarding conference victory yet was the one against Pacific at the Matadome. The Matadors had dropped eleven of the last 12 meetings against the Tigers coming into the game and were down once again at the end of the half. However, a second-half offensive outburst blew the game open as Northridge shot a blistering 70 percent from the field and defeated the Tigers 78-61. The Matadors outscored Pacific 53-30 in the second half.

“The three teams we’ve beaten so far were picked ahead of us in our conference,” said Braswell. “Santa Barbara, Cal Poly and Pacific were picked one, two and three respectively.”

Braswell said that it is “huge” for the team to be undefeated at this point, but adds it is early in the season.

“We’re aware that there’s a lot of basketball to be played and we can’t afford to let up,” Braswell said.

Despite an 80-66 setback at the University of Washington, the only loss during the stretch, Northridge has hardly let up. In the midst of success, they also thrashed conference opponent UC Davis by 35 points and Vanguard University by 45. The remaining sixth win was obtained at Utah Valley State 73-65, another game in which the Matadors had to rally from an early deficit.

“We’re a second half team,” said Heard about the Matadors’ ability to recover after being down. “We defend well in the first half and sometimes we’re not shooting well, but we know our shots are going to end up falling.”

And as shots fall, expectations rise at CSUN. Now, with a 5-0 start in league play, combined with road victories against two of their main foes, they sit atop the Big West Conference. Although it’s not doing much for the preseason polls’ credibility, Northridge is currently a strong candidate to make the NCAA tournament (Division I) for only the second time in school history.

Braswell thinks there’s room for improvement.

“We got this lead in our conference right now and have to take it one game at a time,” said the 12th year coach. “We’ve got to make sure we come out everyday and we work hard and prepare for every opponent and not look past anybody. We still have a lot of work to do.”

The Matadors’ impressive run thus far has been surprising to some people. The success, Braswell credited, is in big part due to his defensive approach to the game and the strong play of the bench.

“We got a couple of guys that can start on a lot of teams in this conference, but they’ve embraced those roles,” said Braswell, referring to his bench power. “Deon (Tresvant) and (forward) Trey Townsend don’t mind coming off the bench. As a matter of fact, they prefer to come off the bench. And when Deon gets going, he can really heat it up offensively.”

Tresvant, a transfer from Long Beach City College, is averaging 13.3 points per game as the team’s sixth man. He said that basketball has been easier for him during these weeks off. The junior enjoyed his break away from the classrooms.

“When you’re out of school, you just wake up, play basketball and have fun,” said Tresvant. “When you’re in school, you have to focus on your gpa, class work and going to practice, as well. It’s pretty tiring.”

Despite the break being over, the Matadors hope to continue their winning ways. They resume their quest at Chicago State today and still have 12 more conference games to play. Each win gets them closer to a higher seed in the Big West tournament and a bigger shot at being part of March Madness.

Heard and the rest of the team are still in Composure January, though.

“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” said Heard, the team’s second-leading scorer. “We know how far we can go and how far we can’t go if we don’t do what we need to do. We’re taking it one game at a time and leaving it all out on the floor.”