Jonathan Heard, Northridge’s senior team captain, couldn’t help but smile when asked about the Matadors’ next two matches, home dates against Santa Barbara and Cal Poly. The 6-foot-6 swingman hopes to make his last two home games of his college career special enough to give him a few more weeks of playing time and some more reasons to show off his teeth.
The Big West Conference-leading Matadors (19-8, 11-3 BWC) need to win their final two regular season games to clinch the league title for the first time in school history, a feat that would assure them beyond-tournament play. It won’t be an easy task, however, as UC Santa Barbara (21-7, 10-4 BWC) visits the Matadome tonight needing the victory to tie Northridge in the standings. Tip-off is at 7:05 p.m.
“It’d be very special (to win the conference title), just knowing how hard we’ve worked, all the time we’ve put in and that it’s going to pay off in the end,” said Heard, who, after four years, will be playing in his final games at the Matadome. “We just got to stay humble and focused. It’s a great opportunity and it’s in our hands to take it, if we want it. I feel this team wants it.”
Santa Barbara is anything but a pushover. The preseason-favorites to win the conference, the Gauchos enter the game having won four straight conference games and with a 5-1 road record in the Big West. The Matadors, however, won the meeting at Santa Barbara, 88-84, behind a career-high 31 points from star reserve Deon Tresvant.
Tresvant got Northridge out of a 13-point second-half deficit in that occasion, throwing in seven three-pointers and scoring 23 of his points after intermission. The 6-foot guard knows the Gauchos will be ready for him this time around, but still expects to play a big role.
“I’m going to be very aggressive on the offensive end,” said Tresvant, the Matadors’ leading-scorer. “I know that by me doing what I did in the first game (at Santa Barbara), they’re going to have a (defensive strategy) set on me, but I’m just going to continue to do what I got to do for my team to win.”
Northridge was fortunate to withstand an almost 50 percent shooting game from the Gauchos that night. The Matadors also survived 25 points from Santa Barbara star guard Alex Harris. Not much has changed since. The Gauchos are still shooting the lights out in conference, hitting on more than 47 percent of their attempts, and Harris, the Big West’s second-leading scorer, is still averaging more than 20 points per game.
The 6-foot-6 Harris is talented, but not the Gauchos’ only weapon. Guard James Powell is the best three-point shooter in the Big West at almost 47 percent and averages 12.4 points per game. Six-foot-8 forward Chris Devine scores just about the same, but hits on more than half of his field goal attempts.
“He’s (Harris) a very talented player, a guy that takes a lot of attention,” Northridge head coach Bobby Braswell said. “But they got other guys on that team that are pretty good players too, like (Devine) on the inside, and Powell. They got a lot of threats out there and lots of things we got to concentrate on. The main thing is we got to make sure we’re pressuring in the right place and not giving them easy baskets.”
The game will certainly not be a walk in the park, but the Matadors are in control of their own destiny. If they beat the Gauchos tonight and a modest Mustang squad this weekend at the Matadome, they’ll be Big West Conference champions. If they don’t, they can still be champions, but likely will have to share the crown with up to two other teams: Santa Barbara and/or Fullerton.
Cal Poly (11-16, 6-8 BWC) visits Northridge on Saturday, Senior Day, at 5 p.m. The game will be televised on Fox Sports Prime Ticket. It will be senior forwards Calvin Chitwood’s and Jayme Miller’s final game at the Matadome. It will also be Heard’s.
“Four years, man, and it’s come down to the end,” said the smiling Heard. “It’s going to be a great night (on Senior Day), very emotional. I have nothing but great experiences, with ups and downs of course, but I had fun playing in the Matadome with fans and their support. It’s going to be a real good experience on Saturday.”
Two more wins and it’ll be a better experience than he can expect. He’ll have a reason to smile on forever.