Anaheim — It had been one day since CSUN coach Bobby Braswell told ESPN that if he had to pick one of his guys to take a game-deciding shot, he wouldn’t do it. He’d let his team figure that out.
Somebody would step up,’ Braswell said.
On Saturday night, it was Rodrigue Mels one more time. The interview-shy guard wasn’t timid about taking the big shots against the biggest nemesis ever known to Matador: Pacific.
‘Rodrigue is unbelievable,’ said CSUN guard Kenny Daniels following the Matadors’ 71-66 overtime win over the Tigers in the Big West Tournament Championship game. ‘He’s been through so much. There was a point in time when he was down because he didn’t even know if he was going to play the next game.’
Mels was bound to get some time on the court following a 28-point night Friday against UC Santa Barbara. ‘ The no-brainer paid off. Mels’ 31minutes at the Anaheim Convention Center turned him into the Big West Conference’s biggest star and the Matadors in dancing mode. Mels had six of CSUN’s 10 overtime points as Northridge earned its second-ever bid to an NCAA Tournament.
‘We’re going dancing,’ said Mels, who had 23 points and was named Tournament MVP.
‘The Dance,’ as the NCAA field of 65 is colorfully referred to, almost didn’t get its Northridge representative. Pacific, historically known for loving to rip the Matadors’ hearts and dancing on it, overcame an early 18-point hole and tied the game at 42-42 following a free throw from Anthony Brown with 11:01 to go in the second half.
‘I knew the lead wasn’t going to stay that way,’ Braswell said.
Mels didn’t let Saturday become another chapter in the ‘Tigers own CSUN’ brochure Pacific must hand out at its freshman orientation day. The senior scored five consecutive points and pushed the Matadors ahead 57-53 with 2:38 to go. Eighty seconds later, Tony Osunsanmi made two free throws and the Matadors led by five.
‘Rodrigue just kept making shots,’ Braswell said.
But the Tigers, true to their never-say-die nature, tied the game again with a Bryan LeDuc (24 points) 3-pointer and two Michael Kirby foul shots with 5.4 seconds to go. CSUN guard Mark Hill had an attempt at the game winner, but from half court. His shot almost went in. ‘Almost’ was only good enough for overtime.
Hill, who scored 15 points, redeemed himself in the extra period, but not before Mels sank two of the three 3-pointers he had for the game ‘- the second one with 1:29 to go to put the Matadors up 69-64. ‘ Hill then iced Northridge’s NCAA ticket with two free throws with 14 seconds to go for the final 71-66 margin.
Down five, Pacific wasted time looking for an open shooter as the Matadors spread across the three-point line. By the time James Doran was firing a contested desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer, CSUN fans were already rushing the court to hug their 2009 Big West champions.
Mels survived the fan stampede and was officially handed the MVP recognition his supporters had already given him prior to the end.
Rob Haynes, CSUN’s only four-year senior, gave the Matadors the lead for good – 66-64 with 3:08 to go in overtime – with a jumper in the face of two lunging Tigers. The guard had had enough of Pacific for a career.
‘Every year since I’ve been at CSUN, our games against Pacific have been dogfights,’ Haynes said. ‘We barely pulled it out, but we won. Tonight was our night.’
The Matadors were seven days removed from having played Pacific at Stockton in the regular-season finale, which they lost. That night, forward Tremaine Townsend was angry enough to wish for a rematch against the Tigers despite the fact Pacific had just improved its all-time record vs. Northridge to 16-4.
‘I want to play them in the Tournament,’ Townsend said then. ‘I’m looking forward to it.’
Playing next door to the place where dreams come true, Townsend got his wish. He scored only two points, but grabbed 12 rebounds. That was the forward’s focus since his irritation a week before had been due to Pacific outrebounding CSUN by 15. Saturday night, the whole team celebrated the Matadors’ slim 40-37 outrebounding of the Tigers.
That and, of course, making ‘the dance.’
‘We owed them one,’ Townsend said. ‘Pacific beat us twice. We had to get them when it counted. We got it done and we’re going dancing, baby.”