The Matadors (9-22, 4-11 Big West) made it two wins in a row, and more importantly, clinched a berth in the Big West tournament with a victory over the UC Riverside Highlanders (14-14, 7-7 Big West) on senior night at the Matadome.
After mustering only 62 points and losing to the Highlanders the first time they played this season, the Matadors were able to ride their offense to an 83-76 victory. The 83 points the Matadors scored was also the third time in their last four games that they have topped 80 points, all of which were CSUN victories.
“If I tell you, I might have to kill you,” CSUN head coach Reggie Theus jokingly said, when asked to elaborate on his team’s recent offensive success.
However, a closer look would show that sophomore guard Aaron Parks has been a large part of that success, especially against UC Riverside.
Against the Highlanders on Saturday, Parks repeatedly embarrassed whoever was guarding him, on his way to his eighth consecutive double-figure scoring game and a career-high 29 points, 19 of which came at the free throw line.
“I just knew the guy that was sticking me, I knew I was much stronger than him,” Parks said. “So when the pick and roll came, I could blow past him, get in the lane and create.”
Even though Parks was unbelievable for CSUN Saturday night, the night was still about the seniors.
“I wanted to win for the seniors, I knew it was senior night,” Parks said. “I just wanted them to win on their senior night so I just had to do what I had to do for my teammates.”
Although it was senior night, another underclassman came up large for the Matadors. Freshman guard Ajon Efferson hit three 3-pointers, including one with nine seconds left in the first half. More importantly, Efferson’s presence kept the Highlanders’ defense honest enough to give players like Parks and senior forward Stephen Maxwell room to operate inside.
“I need him to spot up and hit threes, to hit the open jumper,” Theus said. “And he did a great job.”
Despite all the offensive help, the Matadors still found themselves in a tight matchup early, as they were tied with the Highlanders at the half, 36-36.
But coming out of halftime, the Matadors were spry and stingy on the defensive end, holding UC Riverside scoreless for the first five minutes of the second half, while also taking a six-point lead.
“We talked about in the locker room about turning it up, we talked about in the locker room about if we’re going to win this game, we gotta take it up to another notch defensively,” Theus said. “And that’s what they did.”
Nevertheless, the Highlanders lingered and manage to claw their way back, despite the Matadors’ superb defensive effort.
But every time UC Riverside looked ready to make that final push, it was a senior, Stephan Hicks, that demonstrated the calmness needed to keep the Highlanders at bay.
With under 13 minutes left, UC Riverside cut CSUN’s seven-point lead to three, before Stephan Hicks stepped into a 3-pointer on the right wing and drained it. Then, with less than two minutes remaining in the game, and CSUN clinging onto a four-point lead, Hicks calmly drained a 3-pointer from the left wing. Hicks’s final 3-pointer proved to be decisive, as the Highlanders never got within five points of the Matadors after that.
“I caught the ball, shot it and it went down,” Hicks said, in his casual and tranquil tone.
For a Matadors team that has been hampered by fatigue and inactive players, Hicks’s composure is just what they need in battles like this.
“He’s just ice,” Theus said of Hicks. “He’s just cool.”
After the Matadors held off the Highlanders for the win, seniors Maxwell, Hicks, Devonte Elliott and Robert Cid were joined by their loved ones, teammates, coaches and CSUN officials to honor their time and achievements as Matadors.
“I can stand up and scream it from anywhere that all of those guys [the seniors] are high character people,” Theus said. “It’s been a real joy for me to coach them.”
Before heading to the Big West tournament, the Matadors will close out the regular season on the road, where they will try to extend their win streak to three against the Long Beach State 49ers on Thursday.