Going into the second half on the road against Cal State Fullerton on Jan. 30 down by 21 points, nobody would have faulted the Matadors for simply mailing it in in a bid to get some rest for their game on Saturday against Cal Poly.
After all, they had shot just 34.3 percent from the field and made just one of their seven 3-point attempts while allowing the Titans to run roughshod over them, giving up 46 points on 50 percent shooting in the opening 20 minutes of the game.
Head coach Mark Gottfried even went as far as to say that his players looked like they were “running in mud,” a harsh critique for a team that likes to use its athleticism to run the floor.
But perhaps inspired by Drexel’s 34-point comeback victory over Delaware on Feb. 23, 2018, the largest such win in NCAA Division I men’s basketball history, redshirt freshman Lamine Diane decided to put the team on his back and attempt to erase what seemed like an insurmountable deficit.
After scoring 10 points in the first half, Diane kicked off the second half by scoring 21 of CSUN’s first 29 points, using his entire arsenal of moves (including a couple of 3-pointers) to cut the lead to 10 with roughly five and a half minutes left to play.
Sophomore Terrell Gomez then hit a 3-pointer and freshman Ron Artest III followed that up with a layup to cut the lead to just five with 4:21 to go in regulation, though Diane would be forced to exit the game just seconds later with what appeared to be a cramp in his right leg.
The star freshman would return just 30 seconds later though, adding another eight points to give him 29 for the second half, but it wasn’t enough as Fullerton went 12-15 from the free throw line to seal the 78-71 win.
Despite being unable to complete the comeback, Diane finished the game with 39 points, tying a school record with three others for the most points in a single game in the school’s 20-year history as a Division I program.
“I just played hard in the second half, trying to help my team get the win,” Diane said. “I think that’s why I put up those numbers.”
That wasn’t the only record Diane would break that game, as he also broke the record for most field goals made (17) in one game in the school’s Division I history, beating out Lenny Daniel’s mark of 15 set in 2002.
The Dakar, Senegal native wasn’t done there either, as he helped the Matadors dismantle Cal Poly 83-65 at home three days later, recording 22 points and 11 rebounds in just 27 minutes, earning Big West Athlete of the Week honors for the third time this season after his enormous week.
That third award gave him the most by a freshman ever in the Big West Conference’s 50-year history, and while that is impressive, it does not tell just how dominant Diane has been thus far.
Through 23 games, Diane leads the nation with 232 field goals made, 10th in rebounds per game with 10.7, eighth in points per game with 24.3 per game and 28th in blocks per game with 2.17. He has also recorded 13 double-doubles, tied for the 14th-best mark in the nation.
Naturally, Diane also leads the Big West in all of those categories, and while Gomez and the rest of the Matador squad saw glimpses of his talent in the preseason, nobody expected just how dominant he would be.
“His whole performance is just phenomenal. We knew he was good but his good was kind of just, wow,” Gomez said. “But he’s still getting better every day. The sky’s the limit for him and I wish nothing but the best for him.”
Even though Diane could not push his team over the edge against Fullerton, what he did should not go unnoticed.
Unfazed by the daunting task in front of him, Diane attempted to do the impossible, and though he did end up failing in the end, his performance solidified his claim that he is, without a doubt, the best in the Big West.
*Stats courtesy of GoMatadors and NCAA.com and current as of Feb. 12