CSUN men’s basketball musters gutsy 16-point comeback

CSUN guard Atin Wright, 5, shoots free throws after Cal Poly received a technical foul during the game on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023, at the Premier America Credit Union Arena in Northridge, Calif.

Maxwell Clark, Contributor

The Matadors clawed back from a 16-point deficit against the Cal Poly Mustangs en route to their sixth win of the season, recovering to score 44 points in the second half after only scoring 20 in the first.

The bottom two teams in the Big West Conference standings were matched up Saturday in Northridge. CSUN men’s basketball (6-19, 3-11 Big West Conference) sought revenge for their Dec. 29 defeat against Cal Poly (7-19, 1-13 Big West Conference), and earned a critical win that kept them two games ahead of the Mustangs in conference play.

The Matadors and Mustangs got off to a slow start in the first half, as neither team could find consistency on offense. With 11 minutes gone in the first half, the score was tied at 12. CSUN dragged multiple possessions to the end of the shot clock in the period, forcing the players to throw up heaves. Matadors head coach Trent Johnson understands that the win-loss record of the Mustangs doesn’t mean they are a bad team.

“You look at Cal Poly and they have been in every game,” Johnson said. “They could easily have six or seven wins. So for us, finding a way to win this game was really important.”

The crowd was extremely silent throughout the first half, with the stands being mostly empty to start the game. The loudest cheers in the arena came from the Matadors band members at the top of the bleachers, though more fans arrived toward the end of the first period.

Mustangs center Bryan Penn-Johnson, who was on the latest season of the Netflix documentary series “Last Chance U: Basketball,” checked in and played 12 minutes for Cal Poly. Penn-Johnson hit three of his four shots, including two hook shots.

After the 12-12 start, the Matadors went scoreless for three minutes and allowed the Mustangs to go on a 8-0 run. CSUN trailed by double digits with just under three minutes to play in the first. Northridge guard De’Sean Allen-Eikens was fouled with four seconds left and hit both free throws to cut the lead to eight going into the half.

CSUN hit none of their four 3-point attempts in the half, but came out rolling in the second, knocking down back-to-back 3-pointers to start the period. The Mustangs collected themselves and went on another 8-0 run to push the lead back to double digits.

With just under 13 minutes to play, Cal Poly guard Brantly Stevenson scored on a downhill run to the hoop to hand the Matadors their largest deficit of the game, 16 points.

After the basket by Stevenson, the Matadors finished the game on a 36-9 run.

CSUN guard Atin Wright scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half for CSUN. Wright went scoreless from the field in his last game but turned it around, shooting 6-11 from the field and 8-8 from the free-throw line.

“Missing shots doesn’t really phase me,” Wright said. “So I just have to come to the next game trying to be better and make the best play.”

Johnson expressed his frustration with certain players trying to do too much on the court and making poor decisions, but knew that Wright was doing what he needed to pick up the win.

“I don’t call it hero ball, I call it a guy who is trying to win,” said Johnson. “Trying to do too much, and the bottom line is when [Wright] just lets the game come to him and lets himself be coachable, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

The Matadors were still down five with Wright on the bench as the clock reached five minutes left. CSUN needed to keep the momentum on their side and the Mustangs on their back foot. Matadors forward Onyi Eyisi hit two huge hook shots and had a massive block that erupted the crowd and his teammates.

“I feel like that was a much-needed run at a crucial time in the game,” Eyisi said. “I’m happy I could make those plays for my teammates.”

Eyisi has been dealing with an injury all season long, with knee and back problems having sidelined him for many games. He was able to play the last three games, but the 27 minutes he was on the floor in the win against Cal Poly was the most he had played since returning.

“Onyi is one of our best players, he’s just been hurt, he’s had a bad knee and a bad back,” Johnson said. “I’m just happy for him going down the stretch [of the season] because this is his last college experience. We hope he can continue to play and stay healthy.”

Northridge found themselves down one, with every possession becoming more meaningful than the last. The shot clock was expiring and guard Ethan Igbanugo took a mid-range prayer that missed everything, but an offensive rebound and reach-in foul sent forward Fidelis Okereke to the line. He nailed both free throws to give the Matadors their first lead since the 13-minute mark in the first half.

Penn-Johnson tied the game back up at 51, but that was the last time Cal Poly was close to CSUN, as Wright returned to the floor. Igbanugo strolled the ball down the court and passed to the open Wright, who took a deep 3-pointer with crowd members screaming, “He’s him!” Wright drained the shot, turned to the sideline and smiled at the fans.

The Matadors finished off the improbable comeback by going to the free-throw line five times in the last minute and 13 seconds, making all 10 shots.

CSUN now sits half a game behind UC San Diego in the Big West standings. UCSD will host the Matadors on Saturday to cap off a two-game road trip for CSUN, which starts Wednesday at UC Davis.