San Luis Obispo — The game was in the bag and CSUN guard Rodrigue Mels thought an alley-oop pass from half court wouldn’t hurt his team’s chances at its third consecutive win. Being up 77-66 with 50 seconds to go can give someone that kind of a feeling.
The ball flew 30 feet in the air to its recipient, forward Kenny Daniels, but had a little too much elevation. Daniels’ fingertips touched it, but couldn’t complete the two-pointer and the ball scurried down to the floor towards a Mustang.
‘(Mels) knows it wasn’t a smart play,’ CSUN Head Coach Bobby Braswell said afterwards.
Questionable offense it was, but the Matadors (9-10, 6-3 BWC) figured to live with that on a night where the senior stepped up and into the starting lineup, survived two lightning-quick early fouls and scored all 16 of his points in the deciding second half of Saturday’s 79-68 win over Cal Poly (5-13, 2-6) at Mott Gym.
Mels had a deja v’uacute; experience in this one. For the second consecutive game, the guard picked up two fouls in less than five minutes into the game. He took a seat and didn’t get into the game again until the second half started.
‘I was playing bad defense,’ he said.
But just like on Thursday at UC Santa Barbara, location of CSUN’s prior win, Mels came second-half ready. The senior, who started in place of an injured Rob Haynes (concussion), drove left and right, pulled up for jumpers, and moved without the basketball searching for scoring lanes. In one occasion, with 12:42 remaining, Mels even went Manu Ginobili, crossing a defender left, coming back to his right, and doing the same to the next Mustang before laying up a perfect left-handed layup.
Thirty seconds later, his 3-pointer from the top of the key gave the Matadors a 14-point lead, 58-44.
‘I came out hot,’ Mels said.
Cal Poly didn’t fold. Not on a night that was supposed to be its nationally-televised announcement of arrival as a true challenger in the Big West Conference. The Mustangs had come into the night just having beat Pacific and UC Davis, both on the road and it still looked like a third straight win was well within reach after Charles Anderson’s 3-pointer made it a six-point game with 7:17 left.
From that point on, though, CSUN forced the Mustangs into missing eight of 10 shots and kept them at least eight points away.
‘Defense again,’ said Braswell, whose team limited Cal Poly to 36.5 percent shooting. ‘That’s what’s been keeping us in games.’
CSUN’s offense didn’t hurt either. The Matadors shot 53 percent and made seven of 13 3-pointers.
Only one of those threes belonged to Mels, while another one was Mark Hill’s. The remaining five were all courtesy of point guard Josh Jenkins (18 points). He seemed unable to miss in the fist half. His back-to-back threes to end it turned the Mustangs’ last lead of the game into a five-point CSUN advantage. From then on, Mels took the scoring torch.
The Matadors have now won three straight games and are 4-1 on the road in conference play. Following an 0-6 early-season road trip that made their status as ‘Best in the Big West’ look shaky, they’re beginning to look more and more like, well, the best in the Big West.
‘I’ve always felt we were the No. 1,’ Jenkins said.
Long Beach State’s (11-9, 6-2) still officially No. 1 in the conference, ahead of the Matadors by 1/2 game. CSUN’s had it rough lately, losing players due to legal matters (Deon Tresvant, Dallas Rutherford) and injuries (Haynes). From this, Braswell’s come to the conclusion that his team is actually the underdog instead of No. 1.
The battle gets only tougher for underdogs when they’re on the road. On Saturday night, Mott Gym, was greened-out and Braswell might have suggested he would have liked to see a few red t-shirts in the crowd of nearly 3,000. Not many CSUN supporters were seen at the three-hours-away school.
‘I think we had one fan or maybe two in the stands,’ Braswell said with a smile.
Someone who did seem to have brought his personal fan club along was Jenkins. In the first half, the Mustang crowd began to chant a nickname that was very familiar to the point guard. It was one made famous by UC Santa Barbara fans irked at him a few nights earlier. The name had traveled north along with the Matadors.
‘All these people by the beach ‘hellip; I don’t know, man,’ Jenkins said.
Funny thing, though. The crowd was not directing the chant at Jenkins, but instead at his backup, Hill.
‘I had a good laugh at it because I knew it wasn’t towards me,’ Jenkins said.
It was all laughs at the end of the night. Even Mels got a chance to crack a smile at his end-of-the-game offensive dare that was lucky enough to not become a turnover, but just a Braswell timeout and a stare.’
‘I learned from that,’ Mels said.