What was predicted to be a long week for the Matadors, turned out to be a week of big wins. After their game against Cal Poly, Northridge took a break from conference play and traveled to the other side of the country to face Fairfield University of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in the ESPN Bracket Buster Tournament.
The concept of the tournament was to give schools from Mid-Major conferences a chance to play a game televised by ESPN to garner some attention for the upcoming NCAA tournament. Mid-Major conferences such as the Big West do not receive much media attention because their schools are not seen to have the same talent as major conferences such as the ACC, Pac-10 and Big East.
So when it comes to selection time by the NCAA committee to invite schools to the NCAA tournament, many schools are passed up, usually because they come from weaker conferences. A great example is last year’s Utah State team, which shared the Big West regular season title with Pacific and was ranked in the top 25 at the end of the season.
Utah State ended up being knocked out of the Big West tournament by CSUN. Because of that loss they did not end up getting an at-large bid for the tournament, even with their lofty ranking, while Pacific did. Although Northridge didn’t get a chance to play in one of the 11 televised Bracket Buster games, competing in the tournament might give them some notoriety when tournament time comes around this year.
Before the prospects of a tournament bid could excite the Matadors, they still had some unfinished business to take care of.
First they needed to handle Cal Poly in a Big West conference game at home, which the Matadors cruised to an easy 88-65 victory.
With the victory, the Matadors guaranteed themselves,a first-round bye in the upcoming 2005 Big West tournament. The win also marked the fourth-consecutive victory for the Matadors over the Mustangs, the longest winning streak against Cal Poly in the history of the series (75 games, with Cal Poly holding a 40-35 advantage).
The game marked the return of senior guard, Joseph Frazier, who came back to action after having been suspended since Dec. 30 against UC Riverside. Ian Boylan led all scorers with 18 points on perfect shooting from the field and the free throw line. Jonathan Heard trailed him with 15 points and five assists. Besides the normal stars, other players were able to step up and shine as well.
Senior Eto Onyenegecha had a great night coming off the bench for CSUN with 14 points, and six rebounds. Senior Davin White also looked good throwing in 12 points and dishing out four assists.
Other players had career nights as well.
Freshman guard Robert Locke had a game and career-high with eight assists, and sophomore center Austin Waggener scored nine points and had a career-high, with four blocked shots.
The Matadors took the lead early and never looked back. Overall, Northridge shot a game high 55.2 percent from the field and 52.9 percent from long range. They forced the Mustangs into 19 turnovers and out-rebounded them 35-31.
Following that game, the Matadors were off to Connecticut to face the Fairfield University Stags. The end result came out closer, but Northridge still came out on top, 68-65.
“This was a big win for us,playing on the east-coast, for the first time, so late in the season,” Frazier said. “The Bracket Buster might have helped us out a little by giving us national recognition and attention.”
Frazier, with limited actionoff the bench, shined. He scored 18 points and grabbed six rebounds in just 19 minutes of action. Boylan was a little sluggish from the field, but connected on seven of eight free throws to finish with 11 points and five assists. He also came through in the clutch, hitting the game-clinching basket, to put the Matadors on top 66-65 with 26 seconds left.
Frazier also pulled through, hitting two free throws with six seconds to play, giving the Matadors the 68-65 win. The Stags star, Gai Deng, had 12 points and five rebounds, while DeWitt Maxwell also helped out with 13 points and four rebounds.
The Matadors came out hot, scoring the game’s first eight points, but ended up behind at the half, 36-26.
The Matadors came back though, outscoring the Stags, 42-29, in the second half. Northridge committed a number of errors, but countered them with their strong defense. The Matadors allowed Fairfield to shoot just 32 percent from the field in the second half and 36.4 percent for the game, while shooting 56.5 percent in the second half and 47.7 percent for the game.
Now, the Matadors switch gears again and come back to conference play to face-off against the conference leading Pacific Tigers, who are undefeated in Big West play and ranked 19th in the nation.
The game will be nationally televised on ESPN 2, with the Matadors looking to strike back at the Tigers after last year’s loss in the Big West Tournament Finals. Tip off is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. Feb 26.
“We have to play as a team,” Frazier said. “It’s in our own hands. As a team, we just have to play hard.”