We’re the champs

Alonso Tacanga

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CSUN Head Coach Bobby Braswell says Rodrigue Mels is a ‘happy-go-lucky’ guy. Someone who does anything he asks of him. Even playing a position he’s never played before in his life.

‘This team wouldn’t be winning right now if it wasn’t for Rodrigue,’ said Braswell as he hugged Mels outside the CSUN locker room following the latest of the Matadors’ victories ‘- or thrashings ‘- 99-72 over UC Davis on Thursday night. In need of someone to fill in for the injured Josh Jenkins, Mels had gone from shooting guard to point guard and ‘- in the process ‘- starred.

The win assured CSUN at least a share of the Big West Conference championship, the second in a row for the Matadors. It’s the first time in history that the men’s basketball program accomplishes the back-to-back feat.

The Matadors (15-12, 11-4 Big West) went into the Pavilion with confidence, but still needed someone to step up in the second half as their senior leading scorer, Tremaine Townsend, was forced off the court with 16:56 to play. Townsend had just picked up his fourth foul as CSUN tried to fend off the inspired Aggies, who had just cut the Matador lead to 47-39.

Mels seemingly took it upon himself to erase any type of Aggie hope that the Matadors would be biting their nails in the waning moments of the game. The reserve-turned-point-guard scored nine points in two minutes and turned a challenge into a yawner. By the time he was done, CSUN led 80-60 with 7:08 to go.

‘It’s just the fire of wanting to win,’ Mels said.

Unfortunately for UC Davis (12-18, 7-9), there were no firemen on their squad. The fire kept CSUN ahead without Townsend. By the time the forward came back, the game was in a bag, wrapped up and sent back to Northridge with a bow. The Aggies, who were celebrating Senior Night, didn’t get closer than 18 points the rest of the way.

‘I knew we had people on the bench that could replace me and do a good job,’ Townsend (15 points) said. ‘I wasn’t worried at all.’

Townsend’s teammates made up for his scoring and kept the Aggies in check defensively as well. UC Davis only shot 38 percent from the field for the game. The Matadors, in contrast, made 54.4 percent of their shots.

Mels wasn’t even the game’s leading scorer. That honor belonged to Kenny Daniels, who had 24 points along with eight rebounds. But Mels was perhaps the catalyst of the Matadors’ second consecutive conference championship. Some of Mels’ increased minutes have come by force due to players not being able to be on the court. Guard Deon Tresvant (legal matters) has been gone for 15 games and Jenkins hasn’t been there for five. Mels has had to learn a new position.

‘I knew he didn’t want to do it,’ Braswell said of Mels turning into a point guard. ‘But he was willing to do it because he knew that’s what our team needed.’

The Matadors were all smiles after the final horn sounded. About 90 minutes before that though, their expressions were somber. Braswell thought the Aggies would try to push the Matadors into a high-scoring game, and the prophecy came true. UC Davis scored 15 points in the game’s first five minutes. Guard Vince Oliver couldn’t have started his last game as an Aggie in a better way as he scored 10 of those and UC Davis led 15-11.

Braswell anticipated it all.

‘I wasn’t concerned,’ he said. ‘I knew our defense would begin to wear them down.’

Oliver only scored three more points the rest of the way. Defense and offense combined in the same night gave CSUN its second consecutive victory by 20-points-plus. On Saturday, the Matadors had beat Long Beach State ‘- which won Thursday at Cal Poly to keep alive its hopes of at least a share of the championship ‘- 95-74.

Point guard Mark Hill had 13 points. Forward Vincent Cordell scored 11.

It was a night full of ‘fire.’ With the kind of season the Matadors have had ‘- one filled with a lot of misfortune ‘- some thought even staying competitive would be a challenge for CSUN.

‘People were shoving dirt in our faces a week ago,’ Braswell said. ‘I’m just moved by this team for what they’ve done and how they’ve stepped up.’

The Matadors can secure the outright championship with a win at Pacific (16-11, 9-6) on Saturday. CSUN knows that will not be a walk in the park. Northridge is 0-8 all-time at Stockton. Chances are someone will again have to step up, ala-Mels.

‘That’s what we do,’ Mels said. ‘It’s like a chain. We have each other’s backs.’