Seniors honored at final home game

Alonso Tacanga

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Before it was over and even before it began, four Matadors felt like no other person could feel that night. They were on their home floor, playing the last college regular-season game of their lives and putting on a more-than-convincing display for the crowd. And after, before going to sleep, they – along with almost 1,500 screaming fans – called themselves: Big West Conference champions.

That could have been the perfect ending to these players’ college career stories, but it’s not. The Big West tournament looms about and there’s more basketball to be played down in Anaheim. However, Saturday night, the Northridge basketball world stopped for a few minutes to honor its seniors. Calvin Chitwood, Jayme Miller, Jonathan Heard and Rai Colston were acknowledged on this night. Their sweat and dedication to the program was saluted.

“It was my last time playing in the Matadome and I’m going to miss this place,” said Heard, who spent four years under the direction of head coach Bobby Braswell. “I’m glad I’m leaving, in a good way, to start a new life, but I’ll always have the memories. We left a legacy.”

The seniors shot a combined 18-of-26 from the field and scored 45 points during Northridge’s 97-67 Big West-finale win over Cal Poly on Saturday at the Matadome. After the game, they were paid a tribute, not for the special game they had, but for years of commitment as Matadors. They all received standing ovations, hugs and high-fives, framed commemorative portraits and gratefulness from their coach. Braswell addressed them and thanked them. He called them “blessings.”

“I’m extremely happy for those guys,” Braswell said afterwards. “They’re not only good basketball players, but also great young men. They’re high-character guys. I don’t think we could have won this without them.”

Chitwood, a forward, and Heard, who at 6-foot-6 can play both guard and forward, began their Matador careers during their freshman year in the 2004-05 season. The team went 17-12 in the regular season and reached the Big West tournament championship game that year before falling to Pacific. Miller, a 6-foot-8 forward, joined them next year, a rebuilding one, and appeared in six games before missing the final 19 games of the season due to injury. Colston, a reserve guard, became a Matador during 2006-07.

Heard will depart as the Matadors’ third all-time leading-scorer, while Chitwood is tenth. Miller and Colston, having played considerably less games than the latter, didn’t break many records, but did leave as champs. That was all that mattered to them.

“It feels great, it’s my first time winning a championship,” said a smiling Colston. “It feels good to be a champion, being on top.”

Fans were chanting the seniors’ names before the game started. Then, all four were introduced in the starting lineup and along came more cheering. Chitwood was the veteran highlight of the game, making 5-of-6 three-pointers and throwing down a thunderous, flying dunk midway through the second half that made some people wonder whether his often-injured ankle was ever hurt at all. In the end, with the game already decided in Northridge’s favor, they all came out saluting and acknowledging the crowd.

Heard was the last one to go off the court. He walked to the bench pointing up a “we’re number one” finger. Miller, who came out seconds before, sounded confident in saying that Northridge would indeed be first and alone by the upcoming tournament’s end on Saturday.

“It’s a guarantee,” said Miller, assuring the Matadors will be crowned champs again in Anaheim.

Whether they are, or not, these Northridge seniors have played their last game at the Matadome. They will only have memories of the Northridge arena and its fans from now on. They won’t dwell on that for too long, though. They’re more focused on bigger things right now. They’re trying to create a first-time experience and an ever-lasting memory.

An NCAA tournament bid. The push to extend their careers begins Friday in Anaheim.