One year ago today, the Matadors walked off the Anaheim Convention Center court with their heads down as they were eliminated from the first round of the Big West Tournament by Cal State Fullerton to cap off CSUN’s worst season since the 1995-96 campaign.
Much like its season, it was a mess from the get-go for Northridge. The Matadors were without their best big man, were humiliated by a crowd-pleasing dunk that became a YouTube sensation, and fell to the Titans in postseason play for the third time in five years.
In what has been a turnaround season, the No. 3 seed Matadors (13-17, 9-7 Big West) will get a chance at avenging their playoff exit loss when they face the No. 6 seed Titans (11-19, 7-9 Big West) in the quarterfinal of the conference tournament at the Honda Center tonight.
“Big game, we want to beat them bad,” said redshirt junior Vinnie McGhee, who suffered the embarrassing jam a year ago when Titan Gerard Anderson dunked over the 5-foot-10 guard. “Not only just beat them, but we want to beat them worse than we did in the regular season.”
Northridge defeated Fullerton twice this year, but that wasn’t enough to remove the bitter taste from the Big West Tournament defeat.
“We owe them for last year,” said senior point guard Dathan Lyles. “We do have a target on our back because we beat (Fullerton) twice, but we haven’t forgotten about how they knocked us from the tournament.”
Lenny Daniel, who was selected to the All-Big West First Team on Monday, doesn’t know what his teammates felt when they were eliminated given that the senior forward wasn’t allowed to play for failing to meet CSUN’s grading requirements.
“This is a personal game for me,” said Daniel, who leads CSUN in scoring and rebounding. “Coach (Bobby Braswell) made an adjustment last year to send me home and I accepted that, but if I would have played last year I would have made a big difference. It hurt to sit out, but it made me a better person and now I’m ready to beat Fullerton for a third time.”
In the previous meeting at Titan Gym, Daniel struggled to find shots as Fullerton double teamed him and had a 14-point second half advantage over the Matadors. With the inside play not working for CSUN, freshman Josh Greene stepped up with six 3-pointers including the game-winner to give the Matadors a 70-68 victory on Feb. 10.
The first meeting with Fullerton was the one that turned Northridge’s season around as they entered the game with a 4-12 record, a three-game losing streak and was ranked last in the Big West in points allowed.
With a new defense-first mentality, the Matadors held the Titans to 36.5 percent from the field en route to an 89-65 win at the Matadome on Jan. 15. CSUN went on to win five out seven games and moved up to sixth in scoring defense.
McGhee said he expects a different Fullerton team from the previous two meetings.
“They (Titans) have changed, seen both game tapes and now will come hard at us because they lost to us twice,” he said. “So we have to go with a focus of trying to destroy them.”
The Titans, who will face the Matadors for the fifth time in the last seven conference tournaments, hold a 35-28 overall series advantage over Northridge.
CSUN and CSUF will meet in the final match of a four-game slate at the Honda Center Thursday. No. 1 Long Beach State faces No. 8 UC Irvine in the first game of session one followed by No. 4 Pacific versus No. 5 UC Santa Barbara. No. 2 Cal Poly goes up against No. 7 UC Riverside in session two.
Award-winners: Daniel became the fifth Matador to be named to the All-Big West First Team. Senior guard Rashaun McLemore was selected to the all-second team and senior forward Michael Lizarraga was honored with a special Inspirational Award as he is the only deaf player competing in Division I men’s basketball.