Riverside – Things weren’t looking better. Not even five minutes had gone by and the shorthanded, media-hounded Matadors were already down a dozen and making supporters wonder whether missing their top-scorer was going to completely turn them from Big West favorites to Big West write-offs.
But then the basketball finally dropped through the Highlander hoop. A few more of the same came after. CSUN (5-8, 3-1 Big West) finally found some offense, stuck around and hanged tough for long enough to let its defense the reason for their come-from-behind 64-56 win at UC Riverside Wednesday night.
“They surprised us in the first half. They made a lot of shots,” said Josh Jenkins, who started the game by misfiring on his first eight attempts until finally one went in midway through the closing period. “In the second half, we pulled it together.”
The surprise wasn’t just for the Matadors, but for everyone else. Not even the most enthusiast of Highlander fans could have foreseen a 12-0 lead to start the game. Down 13.3-points-pe- game and a reserve, CSUN couldn’t have picked a worst way to start showing what the Deon Tresvant-less Matadors were going to be like.
The sluggishness wore off eventually but UC Riverside, which was a perfect 7-0 at home entering the contest, still led, 48-42, with 12:39 to go. That’s when Jenkins at last made one, a 3-pointer, and drew the Matadors within a possession. About five minutes later, Jenkins himself gave his team the lead for good.
Defense, zone defense, kept that lead. CSUN managed to keep the Highlanders at bay in the last 2:36 of the game, leading by at least five throughout the span.
“The zone frustrated them,” said Tremaine Townsend, who had a double-double of 11 points and 12 rebounds. “It took them out of their game.”
Besides a little-meaning 3-pointer with seconds left in the game, the Highlanders did not make a field goal in the last 8:54. They missed seven shots and turned the ball over the same number of times in that lapse of time. The Matador defense provoked it. There was no room to even get a shot off. In one possession, UC Riverside used up all 35 seconds of the shot clock to try to find a decent shot opportunity. It was unsuccessful. The shot attempt had the ball hitting the side of the backboard and the home crowd gasping in awe.
“It was really special defensively,” CSUN Head Coach Bobby Braswell said.
After its inauspicious start, CSUN scored eight of the next 10 points to put a soul back into its game plan. They trailed throughout the first half, most of it by double digits, but went into the locker having cut the lead to four before letting it balloon back up to nine, 34-25, at halftime.
UC Riverside, who shot 46.5 percent from the field in the opening half, closed the game shooting 25 percent. In contrast, the Matadors went from a 29-percent first half to a game-clinching, 54-percent closer.
At the end, it was the most unlikely of Matadors yelling at the rival fans to have a good night. Jenkins, whose woeful shooting cooperated to the early hole the team was in, ended up being the team’s second leading scorer. Much of his 13-point night came at the line when it was game-icing time.
“My shot hasn’t been falling the whole year,” Jenkins said. “But a few went down at the end, so I felt good about myself and I started having some fun.”
“That’s when I’m at my best, when I have fun.”
Jenkins was not in the starting lineup for the Matadors and it wasn’t because Braswell was trying to give the team a “Deonesque” spark by bringing his senior point guard off the bench. Jenkins said there was an “altercation” and that the coach decided to give him a day off from one of the practices and sit him down for the beginning of the game.
“I guess I responded well,” Jenkins said. “It fired me up.”
Other Matadors had a good response at having lost their leading scorer, Tresvant – who will not play until further notice regarding the allegations that he stole from a Best Buy. Rob Haynes once again was more than accurate from the 3-point land, made 4-of-5 of them and led the Matadors in scoring with 14 points. Kenny Daniels had 10 points, including two clutch 3-pointers of his own, one that brought CSUN within one point when it seemed impossible to get that close to the Highlanders and another that was a dagger and made the Matador lead six points.
“It’s time for the rest of the cast to step up and I think they did,” Jenkins said.
And for all the off-the-court drama that’s surrounded CSUN over the past week, this drama might have given them a solution to the question of what their identity is. When in doubt, defense is the best offense.
“With off-the-court problems, you can look at it in positive or in a negative way,” said UC Riverside’s Kyle Austin, their leading scorer who only managed nine points on the night. “Obviously, they made it a positive and came out prepared.”