Matadors defeated by Anteaters 82-66

Alonso Tacanga

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A four-point play in a basketball game is an oddity, but it happened twice on Saturday night. Unfortunately for the Matadors, one of those oddities helped greatly in preventing something that nowadays, more than odd, is nearly impossible: an Irvine home loss.

Irvine point guard Michael Hunter hit a three-pointer as he was fouled to stop a 13-2 Northridge second-half run that had the Matadors (19-8, 11-3 Big West) within three points, returning the Anteaters command of a game they had controlled throughout en route to an 82-66 win on Saturday night at the Bren Events Center. Irvine (14-14, 8-6) is 11-0 at its on-campus arena.

“When you work so hard to get to that point, down by three and then you get hit back with a (four-point play), it takes the wind out of you and some people put their heads down,” said Northridge point guard Josh Jenkins, who had 13 points. “We responded the best we could, but this Irvine crowd wasn’t having it.”

The Anteaters, who are just 3-14 anywhere outside their home court, had the Matadors against the ropes in the second half and led 58-44 after Hunter made two free throws with 9:50 remaining. But, as he has all season long, Northridge star reserve Deon Tresvant took it upon himself to bring the team back. Tresvant hit back-to-back three pointers to cut the deficit to eight and prompt an Irvine timeout. Then, perhaps motivated by Tresvant’s will, the rest of the cast stepped up and finished the run. Forward Tremaine Townsend capped it with a rare three-pointer that made it 60-57 with just under five minutes to play.

Tresvant said he was making up for a quiet first 20 minutes, where he only took two shots and was held scoreless.

“I let my team down in the first half. I wasn’t very aggressive on the offensive end,” said Tresvant, who ended up with 18 points to lead Northridge. “But my coaches told me to be more aggressive in the second half and I think I did a good job. That’s my job, to bring the team back. That’s why they call me ‘the microwave’ (because I can ‘heat up’ quickly).”

However, after another timeout, Hunter found himself behind the three-point line and rose up to take a shot just as Northridge guard Rodrique Mels bumped into him. Hunter made the shot and Mels was called for the foul. The point guard made the ensuing free-throw, giving his team a seven-point lead and regaining control of the game for good. The Matadors couldn’t get any closer the rest of the game and will now have to win their remaining two home games to assure themselves the Big West Conference title.

Northridge, who had its own four-point play when forward Calvin Chitwood made a three-pointer while being fouled in the first half, could lose a game and still have at least a share of the championship. However, Jenkins is having none of that.

“We’re trying to be at the top, number one, nobody next to us,” said Jenkins. “Everybody underneath us.”

The Matadors trailed most of the game and allowed Irvine to shoot 53 percent from the field, the highest percentage shot this season by any Matador opponent. Anteater center Darren Fells contributed to that early on by hitting on all five of his attempts and scoring 12 of his game-high 19 points in the first half. Fells along with Hunter and guard Patrick Sanders were a triple thorn in the Matadors’ side and combined to score 53 of Irvine’s 82 points.

Northridge head coach Bobby Braswell hinted that the team might have lacked energy due to the high point they were coming in from, a road win against direct-conference foe Fullerton last Thursday.

“We just looked emotionally drained from the beginning,” Braswell said. “Our energy level wasn’t good tonight. Irvine was clearly the more aggressive team. They were a lot hungrier than we were. Give Irvine the credit. They executed and shot well. We didn’t.”

By game’s end, the Anteaters, who had their homecoming that night, found themselves dribbling out the clock and celebrating having beat yet another tough team at home. The Matadors, though unhappy with the result, preferred to look ahead.

“This loss is a wakeup call for us. We know what’s at stake,” said Tresvant, talking about the next game, a home meeting against UC Santa Barbara. “We’re hungry. We’re hungry now so I hope Santa Barbara’s prepared because we’re going to come prepared. We’re going to hit the practice floor hard on Monday and be ready come Thursday.”

The Gauchos are only a game behind Northridge in the standings coming into the week. The game will be played on Thursday at the Matadome at 7:05 p.m. After that, only one game will remain in the regular season schedule before the Big West tournament is played at the Anaheim Convention Center March 12-15. The Matadors are trying to preserve the top spot. Irvine is fighting for a better seed in the tournament.

One thing’s for sure. The Matadors and everyone else are glad the tournament is not being played at Irvine’s Bren Events Center.