Not even a late 17-3 Matador charge could keep the Cal State Fullerton Titans from securing their place in the quarter finals of the Big West men’s basketball tournament March 8 at the Anaheim Convention Center.
The sixth-seeded Titans managed to overcome the Cal State Northridge men’s basketball team’s aggressive defense and consistent scoring in the second half to beat CSUN 73-63 in what turned out to be an early exit for the Matadors.
“I am very proud of our effort,” said head coach Bobby Braswell. “We challenged them in the second half and we fought back after we got down, but Fullerton made the big plays and that’s what you expect from a good team.”
The Titans grabbed an early 18-6 lead, thanks to seven points from junior Justin Burns. Burns finished the night with 19 points and 12 rebounds, good for his sixth double-double of the season. Titan Jamaal Brown contributed 18 points on 6-8 shooting, while teammate Bobby Brown added 17 points and five assists.
Frank Robinson was the only other Titan in double figures, scoring 11 points, including two monumental dunks down the stretch that shifted the momentum back to the Titans direction. Oddly enough, CSUF recorded not a single bench point from its reserves, as the team relied solely on its starters to score.
“We were fortunate to come away with the win against a good team like Northridge,” said Fullerton head coach Bob Burton. “But I can promise, our bench players will be (a) factor as this Tournament progresses.”
Junior Mike Efevberha led the Matadors in scoring with 16 points in just 17 minutes of play. Sophomore Jonathan Heard contributed on all ends of the floor with 14 points on 6-11 shooting, six rebounds, four assists and two steals.
“Last year I had players on the team that led by example,” Heard said. “But this year I felt we really lacked leadership. Next year I can tell you that will be different.”
But maybe the most unlikely performance was from freshman Rob Haynes, who showed tremendous poise, scoring 11 points, including three crucial three-pointers during the Matador comeback attempt.
“I didn’t feel any pressure,” Haynes said. “If I’m open I am going to shoot with confidence, and if I’m confident it will go down.”
The Matadors found themselves down by 12 points at halftime 35-23. In the 2005-06 year, CSUN has not come back when down by double digits at the half, and was not able to break that spell in what turned out to be their final game of the season.
In the second half, the Titans extended their already large lead to 21 points, thanks to a 13-4 run over the first four minutes of the second period, extending its lead to 48-27. But the Matadors would not give up just yet, as CSUN went on a 19-4 run to cut the lead down to six with 7:49 to play.
“We had some good looks,” Braswell said. “But we still didn’t take advantage of some easy opportunities and that cost us.”
CSUF demonstrated, however, why it deserved the win, as the Titans answered the Matador second half comeback with a run of their own. Bobby Brown hit a pair of three-pointers, igniting a 16-5 charge, including a 10-0 run, that vaulted the Titan lead back to 68-51 with 3:45 left in the Matadors less than satisfactory 11-17 season. As has been the case the entire season, turnovers plagued the Matadors’ comeback efforts, as the team gave the ball up 20 times, five more than their season average, compared to 15 turnovers for the Titans.
“I told the guys not to get used to this type of season,” Braswell said. “Next year will be a lot different. And I can guarantee we will not have another 11-17 season.”
Junior Terrell Jones led the Matadors off the bench with seven points in the first half, but did not score in the second half.
Last season, the Matadors were somewhat of a Cinderella team, making it all the way to the Big West semifinals against Pacific, only to fall on a potential game-winner at the buzzer that fell short. But this year there would be no fairy tale ending as CSUN will have to rely on its offseason to build back to its 2004-05 caliber team.
“You really never know how much you miss guys like Ian Boylan and Davin White until they are gone,” Braswell said. “But we have all but one player returning next year, so we will be all right.”
Braswell also mentioned that due to the success of last season’s team, the Anaheim Convention Center acted as somewhat of a home court, but that his team could not get too comfortable
The lone senior on the Matador squad is point guard Balkari Altheimer, who scored just three points in his collegiate finale. He also contributed five assists.
Cal State Fullerton would fall on March 9 to the Long Beach State 49ers in a tight 94-91 thriller.
Matt Osias can be reached at email@example.com.