After the storm had been weathered, Matador head coach Bobby Braswell called Riverside’s 5-17 record “deceiving.” Going from a seemingly easy win to a nerve-racking, grind-out victory has that effect on a coach.
Guard Josh Jenkins scored 11 of his 18 points down the stretch, helping to preserve what was once a 21-point lead, and the Matadors (17-6, 9-2 Big West) held off a furious Riverside second-half rally to remain solo atop the Big West Conference after a difficult 73-61 win over the Highlanders Saturday night at the Matadome.
“For about 30 minutes, we were pretty phenomenal defensively,” Braswell said. “And, in a 10-minute stretch down there, (Riverside) really got it going (offensively). (Highlander guard Larry) Cunningham picked up the pace. Basketball is a game of runs and unfortunately they had a big one and cut it down to two (points), but fortunately our guys responded.”
The Matadors’ lead ballooned to 50-29 after Jenkins sank two free throws with 12:11 left in the game. Riverside (5-17, 2-9) couldn’t stop coughing up the ball and Northridge took advantage by scoring 24 of its points off of steals. However, the Highlanders decided to stop “deceiving” the 1,128 people in attendance and turned on the shooting switch.
Cunningham, Riverside’s leading-scorer, hit back-to-back three-pointers. He missed his next attempt, but little thereafter. He had 15 of his 22 points in a four-minute stretch which, combined with a Cleavon Barlow layup, cut the Highlanders’ deficit to four with eight minutes to go in the half. Ninety seconds later, following a couple of Riverside free throws, Northridge’s lead was only 52-50.
“Basketball is about runs,” said Matador swingman Jonathan Heard, who had 12 points in the game. “Riverside had their run (even though) we did our part defensively for most of the game. We had some let-ups, we let some people get off.”
Cunningham and Riverside got off, all right. The 21-2 run turned a celebrating crowd into an angst-growing one. The only noise heard, besides the coaches yelling out defensive schemes, was the cheering and clapping of the believing Highlander bench.
Jenkins, who had learned before the game he’d lost his backup Paul Wayne for the remainder of the season, had an answer.
Jenkins hit a three-point basket to give the Matadors a five-point edge, bringing life back into the team and the home crowd. Cunningham answered with a jumper, but Northridge tightened-up defensively and went on a 7-0 run to push the lead back up to double-digits, 62-52, with 3:59 to go. The Highlanders couldn’t continue their hot shooting streak and didn’t threaten again.
“I didn’t shoot the ball well in the first half, but I felt like giving myself a chance to see if I (could get it going offensively),” said Jenkins, who hit a trio of three-pointers to counter the Riverside avalanche. “I was just really into the game and wanted to win. I felt like the best way to help my teammates right there and then was by hitting some threes.”
The Matadors, who came into the game in sole possession of first place, due to a Pacific loss at Fullerton on Thursday, struggled early on to shake off the second-to-last place team in the conference and only led 17-15 midway through the first period. A 17-5 run to end the half, however, put some distance between them and set up Riverside’s second-half comeback.
Forward Calvin Chitwood scored 12 points for Northridge and reserve Deon Tresvant added 10. The Matadors ended the night the way they had started it, in first place and in control of their destiny.
“We got to hold our own, because everyone’s going to come at us hard and nothing’s going to be easy,” said two-time Big West Player of the Week, Northridge forward Tremaine Townsend, who had eight points and 10 rebounds. “We got to have it in our minds that we’re the number one team and we got to play like the number one team. That’s what our mentality’s got to be every single game.”
The Matadors will be on the road tomorrow, taking on Long Beach State at The Pyramid at 7:05 p.m. The 49ers’ (6-18, 3-8) three conference wins have come at the expense of lower-ranked teams, twice against last-place Davis and once at home against Riverside.
“We got a target on our backs still. We got to play well and can’t afford to have any let-downs,” Braswell said. “We got a tough one at Long Beach next week”
The Matadors hope Long Beach’s record won’t be as “deceiving” as Riverside’s was.