ANAHEIM, Calif. – The inexperienced Matadors, who were chosen to finish eighth in the conference, had their surprise run to the Big West semifinals come to an end as the veteran group of UC Santa Barbara won in a blow out, 83-63, Friday night at the Honda Center.
“We were picked to finish eighth or ninth and these kids found a way to fight and battle and ended up in third,” Cal State Northridge coach Bobby Braswell said. “As a coach I couldn’t be more pleased, but we have to give credit to Santa Barbara. They did what they needed to do to get to the championship game.”
The No. 5 seed UCSB (18-13), which went on to win its second consecutive Big West Tournament championship, jumped on the third-seeded Matadors (14-18) early with the one-two punch of Orlando Johnson and Jaime Serna. Johnson scored 20 of his game-high 30 points in the first period and Serna chipped in 12 as the Gauchos went into the locker room with a 40-19 lead.
“We didn’t do a good enough job on those guys (Johnson and Serna),” said Braswell, who closed his 15th season at Northridge. “In the first half they combined for 32 of their 40 points and we didn’t keep them in check.”
Senior forward Lenny Daniel, a Big West All-First Team member, had a tough time against Santa Barbara’s size and length. It seemed all of Daniel’s shot was contested by 7-foot-3 Greg Somogyi and Serna.
“I don’t think they really affected me. I just played bad, missed easy shots and dunks,” said Daniel, who ended up scoring 16 points, but only had two at halftime. “I let the team down.”
“He (Daniel) didn’t let us down. He carried us all year, so he has no reason to worry about letting anybody down” Braswell said.
Daniel, Rashaun McLemore, Raymond Cody, Dathan Lyles, Michael Lizarraga are the five seniors the Matadors will be losing.
“They are a very special group. If it wasn’t for those guys we wouldn’t have had the success we had,” Braswell said.
CSUN went a dismal 6-of-27 from the field (22.2 percent) to start the game and it didn’t get any better in the second period.
The Matadors missed their first seven shots, including two dunks by Daniel, to start the second half and let the deficit balloon to 26 points.
Freshman Josh Greene hit back-to-back 3-pointers to pull the Matadors within 14 with 5:55 left, but that’s the closest CSUN got.
CSUN shot 28.6 percent from the floor, which tied a season-low, as they went 20-of-70 for the game. UCSB made just 19 baskets, but converted on 37 free throws.
Next year, CSUN will return its eight freshmen, who now have plenty of playing experience.
“We (the freshmen) have seen what it takes to be a good team,” said Greene, who scored 12 points. “It’s all about what we do in the offseason and our preparation for next season.”
Braswell said his senior group was a big reason why the first-year Matadors improved drastically.
“The freshmen wouldn’t have grown and matured without (the seniors). They were the coaches, the fathers and the big brothers in that locker room,” he said.
Last season, Northridge finished with a disappointing 11-21 record and an eighth place finish in the Big West Conference. Braswell said the reason for this year’s turnaround is the leadership and chemistry the seniors had with the young players.
“Our seniors didn’t have that kind of leadership last year when they came in here. They realized how frustrating it was for them and they were going to make sure it didn’t happen to these freshmen,” Braswell said.
The Matadors have now laid down the foundation to possibly have another successful Big West Tournament run for the next three seasons.
“You look at a team like Long Beach State go back and look at what happened with those guys when they were freshman,” Braswell said. “They weren’t as good as they are now. This is part of the journey and you have to lose and fail, but you learn from them and get better.”