In front of 2,113 screaming fans, the Matador men’s basketball team managed to overcome a second half Trojan charge, ultimately defeating USC 81-76 for the first time in school history in an overtime thriller Sunday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
Led by junior standout Mike Efevberha’s 20 points, the Matadors were able to secure a victory in the teams opening game of the season and give the Trojans a home opening defeat.
“We came in on the road and beat a Pac-10 team,” Efevberha said. “It is time to put Northridge back on the map.”
The Matadors started the game crisp offensively, scoring nine of their first 10 points from behind the arc. Six-foot-eight junior forward Austin Waggener was the first Matador to score in the young 2005-06 season, making back-to-back three-pointers. However, USC remained close to the hungry Matadors, as the two teams exchanged leads eight times in the first half alone.
With 2:28 remaining in the first half USC’s RouSean Cromwell threw down a momentum-shifting dunk, shrinking the CSUN lead to 32-31. The defensive-heavy Matadors stepped up the tempo, allowing only one point the rest of the first half, stretching the lead to 42-32.
Part of the reason CSUN was able to hold down the USC offense was due to the effectiveness of head coach Bobby Braswell’s zone defense. USC’s Gabe Pruitt was held to an abysmal 3-20 shooting from the field and just one first half point.
“We talked all along about defense,” Braswell said. “And we did a great job against Gabe.”
CSUN relied heavily on their solid bench play, scoring 15 points in the first half, compared to just five for USC. CSUN also shot 60 percent from three-point land, sinking six of 10.
In the second half the Matadors came out aggressive, maintaining at least an eight-point lead for the first 12 minutes, and leading by as much as 14. One of the difference makers for the Matadors, however, was the overall exceptional play from the six-foot-seven 225-pound Matador Jayme Miller, who throughout the entire game made his presence felt.
Although the junior transfer scored 10 points and registered a team-high seven rebounds, Miller’s most important contributions were not found on the stat sheet, but rather away from the ball, in situations that lead to CSUN gaining momentum.
“Jayme is a key addition to this team,” Efevberha said. “He is willing to do all the dirty work.”
Miller managed to force the Trojans to play true on offense and defense. His intensity caused several turnovers and thwarted countless USC attack. Miller helped shift the momentum through an array of contributions including: pressuring the ball, taking charges, guarding smaller defenders and making sure not to give up key positions in the paint to the larger post players.
“He played very well,” Braswell said of Miller. “He did a good job on the boards and on offense and defense.”
“My main focus is defense,” Miller said. “I just try and give 100 percent when I am out there. Coach (Braswell) told me to leave everything on the floor.”
Late in the second half and after giving up 11 points on turnovers, USC managed a comeback. With the hope of achieving last minute heroics, the Trojans squeezed the Matador lead to just four points with 56 seconds to play and a home opener loss hovering on the horizon.
CSUN had several opportunities to dribble down the clock, but USC discovered CSUN’s temporary Achilles heel – free throws.
The Matadors shot just under 62 percent from the free throw line and the Trojans took advantage of it. CSUN converted just one of its final four free throws in regulation, one of which would prove to be the turning point in the game.
With nine seconds left and a 70-68 CSUN advantage, sophomore Jonathan Heard passed the ball to Efevberha, who quickly broke the full-court trap and brought the ball past the time line, where he was immediately fouled and sent to the line for a one-plus-one. Efevberha was 15-15 from the free throw line during preseason, but his first attempt would miss wide, giving USC the ball.
“Missing that free throw killed him,” Braswell said.
With only a handful of seconds left, USC broke the CSUN defense, finding the high-flyer Cromwell for a game-tying dunk a second shy of the buzzer, sending the suspense into overtime 70-70.
In the overtime period, it was USC that carried the initial momentum, jumping out to an early three-point lead. But just as quick, the Matadors carefully executed a play that left Heard open for a spot-up three pointer, which he drained to tie the game at 73-73.
Heard said he felt that the shot really pumped up his team and thought it contributed to the intensity the Matadors harnessed to finish the game strong.
After a Pruitt free throw, Heard again came up big, grabbing an offensive rebound and putting it back up and in for two more of his overall 15 points.
With the lead at 75-74 and just two minutes left in overtime, the Matadors were edging closer to stunning USC. But as it did at the end of regulation, the game would come down to free throws.
After a Keith Everage jumper for CSUN and a USC bucket, the lead was at three for the Matadors. Finally Efevberha was fouled and sent to the line, where even a single basket would all but put the game out of reach. As he stepped up to the line the USC fans were obnoxiously loud. But the focused Efevberha would not make the same mistake twice, as he knocked down the pair, extending CSUN’s lead 81-76, and more importantly notching a much-deserved “W” in the win column.
“I was just hoping I would get a second chance,” Efevberha said. “When I got it, I knew we had the game.”
Among the spectators watching the game was USC alum and Los Angeles Laker assistant coach Tex Winter. Although he was there primarily to support the newly hired Trojan head coach Tim Floyd, Winter felt the Matadors had some real talent.
“CSUN is a good defensive team,” Winter said. “I like Efevberha. He has some good skill.”
With a knee injury during the preseason, Sunday’s game also marked the return of 6-foot-10 senior center Thomas Shewmake. Although he started the game looking a bit timid, electing to launch a three-pointer on his first touch of the game instead of utilizing his size down low, Shewmake eventually worked out the kinks, grabbing five rebounds and scoring six points in 21 minutes of play.
“This is a young team,” Braswell said. “(USC) was a good win because it started the season on a positive note.’
Braswell commended the CSUN fans for showing up and supporting the team. CSUN’s next game is against the University of Tulsa at the matadome tonight at 7:05 p.m, and Braswell hopes to fill the arena with a sea of red.
Matt Osias can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.