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Fullerton blew out the Matadors (20-10 overall) in the first half and Northridge was never able to recover as the Titans (23-8) easily handled them and won 83-68 in Friday’s Big West Conference tournament semifinals at the Anaheim Convention Center, ending the Matadors’ season and any hope they had of reaching the NCAA tournament.
Titan guard Josh Akognon had 19 of his 24 points in the game-deciding half.
“I was very surprised,” said Akognon, who expected a harder-fought game. “We wanted to come out and take the first punch, (but) when we were up by 14 with (11) minutes left in the half, yeah, I was very surprised.”
The Titans took the first punch, alright. They began by scoring the game’s first seven points and taking a 10-point lead with only five minutes gone in the period. The Matadors, in contrast, looked discouraged: getting their shots blocked, throwing passes out of bounds and/or to their rivals, and having to resort to one-on-one plays to get their offense going. It all added up to a big Titan lead that ballooned up to as much as 20. Northridge went into intermission trailing 46-28.
Matador coach Bobby Braswell gave all the credit to the Titans’ intensity at both ends of the floor. He feared his team could start off their first game in almost a week rusty, and it happened. Fullerton came into the game having played and won against UC Riverside the night before.
“Obviously, we came out a little bit slow,” said Braswell, the Big West Coach of the Year. “I was concerned we might have a drag in us because tonight was our first game. Fullerton had a chance to play (Thursday) and get a game under their belts. But I didn’t anticipate that (the drag) would go as long as it went. We just didn’t play well tonight.”
Northridge finally swung at the Titans in the second half and got within 55-45 with 13:20 left in the second half after swingman Jonathan Heard got a steal and broke free for a layup, causing Fullerton to take a timeout and bringing back life to the Matador bench and their fans. The Titans struck back immediately, however, with two consecutive baskets to end the run. They never allowed Northridge to cut the deficit to single digits.
The Matadors, who at times were known to be a second-half team, trailed by as many as 23 points.
“Fullerton was the aggressor in the first half,” said guard Josh Jenkins, who had seven points and four assists for Northridge. “In the second half, we have a tendency to come back and that’s what we tried to do. (But) It was a hump that we couldn’t (overcome). (We couldn’t) cut it to single digits. They kept responding and we were just trading baskets back and forth.”
Tremaine Townsend led Northridge with 16 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks. Deon Tresvant had 8 points by halftime and was the only Matador who looked capable of saving Northridge. The Big West’s Sixth Man disappeared in the second half, however, going scoreless until making a meaningless three-pointer in the final seconds of the game.
The Matadors shot 41 percent from the field in the game’s first 20 minutes before picking it up and shooting 51 percent in the second half. Fullerton shot 50 percent for the game.
Jenkins dismissed the notion that Northridge’s dismal first half was due to its basketball idleness. Instead, he credited the Titans.
“No, not at all,” said the point guard when asked if not having played since the week before was the reason for the rust showing. “(Fullerton) just wanted it more. They wanted to win. We came out shaky. They threw the first punch and we didn’t recover.”
Northridge’s dream season ends in nightmarish fashion. After starting 18-6 and leading the Big West’s standings most of the way, the Matadors lost four of their final six games. That amounted to a first-place tie and a share of the conference regular season championship and a quick, disappointing exit from the Big West tournament.
Heard, who played his last game as a Matador, said it was a successful season, despite its bitter ending.
“We had a great run,” said Heard, who leaves as the third all-time leading scorer in Matador history. “We had a great season. It always hurts to lose, especially like this in my last game. But you can’t dwell on a loss, we had a great run for it.”
Fullerton advanced to the championship game and will play Irvine (18-15), who earlier in the day upset top-seeded UC Santa Barbara (23-8) 55-50. The winner will win a bid to play in the NCAA tournament.