The Big West Conference title could be on the line tonight as the conference-leading Matadors enter their last stretch of league-play and hit the road to pay a visit to second-place CSU Fullerton at the Titan Gym at 7:05 p.m.
The Titans (18-7, 10-3 Big West) are only a half-game behind Northridge (18-7, 10-2) for the top spot in the conference. A Matador victory would give Northridge some breathing room in first place. A loss, however, drops them behind Fullerton with only three conference games left before the Big West tournament.
“Our guys know what’s at stake here,” Northridge head coach Bobby Braswell said.
Fullerton comes into the game on a four-game winning streak and an identical overall record to that of Northridge. They are the only Big West team to win at the Matadome this season (an 80-72 victory on Feb. 2). The Titans have dominated the Matadors as of late, winning the last eight match-ups between the teams.
The Matadors let an eight-point second-half lead get away the last time these teams met. Fullerton still trailed by a point with two minutes remaining in regulation before going on a 9-0 game-finishing run. Six-foot-5 forward Scott Cuttley led the Titans in scoring with 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds that evening.
Braswell knows his team allowed a big opportunity to slip away.
“We defended them well the last time they were here,” the head coach said. “We just didn’t shoot the ball well when we needed to.”
Northridge is coming off a 73-72 BracketBuster home loss against Rider on Saturday. Six-foot-11, 250-pound center Jason Thompson had only 11 points in the game, but single-handedly fouled out a thin Matador frontline that’s missing 6-foot-8 forward Calvin Chitwood, who is out with an ankle sprain.
Cuttley, whom Braswell described as “just as effective” as Thompson, could mean foul trouble for the Matadors. Forwards Jayme Miller and Tremaine Townsend are the only active players over 6-foot-6 and the ones that will likely have the duty of guarding him. The 235-pound Cuttley averages 14.2 points a game.
“I’m going to play him just like I play everybody else, I’m just going to lock up,” said Townsend, regarding his defensive task. “I just gotta be more conscious of my (number of) fouls and try to stay out of foul trouble as much as I can.”
But Cuttley might not even be the biggest of Northridge’s worries. Fullerton guard Josh Akognon is the second-leading scorer in the Big West and averages 20.1 points per game. Akognon is also a 94 percent free-throw shooter. He was 10-of-10 from the line when the Titans won at Northridge.
The defeat then cut the lead the Matadors held on the rest of the conference. Northridge even lost its first-place standing momentarily, a few games after the loss, but is now back in the driver’s seat. Matador star reserve Deon Tresvant, who missed a game-winner against Rider at the buzzer, is aware the game is “pretty much for the championship.” He also wants to return a favor.
“It’s a lot of payback,” said Tresvant, vowing to avenge the Matadors’ only conference home loss of the season. “The whole bus-ride up to Fullerton, that’s what’s going to be on my mind: payback. I’m going to go prepared, focused and ready to get this win and take what’s ours. We’ve worked too hard to let (the Big West title) get away.”
The Matadors will also play at UC Irvine on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. The Anteaters gave Northridge all they could handle when they visited the Matadome on Jan. 31, but lost 69-64. Irvine’s coming off a home win against Idaho and will play Long Beach State tonight before their weekend match-up against Northridge. The Anteaters are 9-1 at home and have yet to lose a conference game in Irvine.