The CSUN men’s basketball team is quietly asserting itself as a contender in the Big West Conference.
After dropping its first two conference games, the Matadors have quickly regrouped, winning four of their last six games, the last win coming at home against non-conference South Dakota State on Jan. 21. The win improved the Matadors to 10 wins on the season.
The Matadors had trouble shaking off the Jackrabbits in the first half. The Matadors led by as many as 10 points and led by seven several times, but South Dakota State counter-attacked each time. It trailed big and the Jackrabbits eventually evened the scored at 32 on a Matt Caldwell three-pointer with just over a minute left. Two free throws by junior forward Calvin Chitwood gave the Matadors a 34-32 lead at halftime.
The second half, however, belonged to CSUN. The Matadors started out on a 12-0 run to begin the half. Scores by sophomore guard Rob Haynes, junior guard Tre Peters and Chitwood capped off an 18-2 run that gave the Matadors a 52-34 lead. South Dakota State made several runs at CSUN in the second half, but the Matadors lever let the lead fall below single digits, and eventually moved on to the victory.
“Obviously we didn’t play well in the first half and it was a totally different game in the second half,” head coach Bobby Braswell said. “Our defense really picked up in the second half, we started to make things happen and we ended up forcing 21 turnovers.”
Chitwood led CSUN with 21 points and junior Jonathan Heard scored 18. Caldwell led the Jackrabbits with 14 points, Andy Kleinjan scored 12 and Kai Williams had 11.
CSUN is turning the corner after a slow conference start.
The Matadors dropped two hard-fought games, the first to Pacific and the second to Cal State Fullerton.
Against Pacific, the Matadors held a 36-30 halftime lead, but the Tigers came out strong in the second half and held off several Matador threats to win 68-64 and defeat CSUN for the eighth consecutive time.
Against Fullerton on Jan. 4, the Matadors jumped out to an 11-0 lead, only to see the Titans eventually climb their way back into the game.
Fullerton led at the half 39-26, but CSUN climbed back into the game itself, going on a 16-4 run to take a 42-41 lead, but it turned out to be the last CSUN lead, as Fullerton answered with a 13-5 run to build a 54-46 lead.
CSUN hung around, but Fullerton, just like Pacific did in the game’s waning moments, held on for 76-72 win.
Fullerton also defeated CSUN for the sixth straight time.
CSUN, though, was not one to get too down, as the Matadors finally got their first conference win against a determined UC Riverside squad 67-60 two days later. CSUN was tested again in its next game, this time at home against UC Irvine on Jan. 11, but again passed with a 67-61 win.
The Matadors’ biggest win came two days later on Jan. 13, when they defeated the pre-season conference favorite Long Beach State 49ers 90-83.
The win not only vaulted CSUN into fourth place in the Conference, but also snapped Long Beach State’s nine-game winning streak. CSUN lost at UC Davis 93-88 in double overtime on Jan. 18 before bouncing back to defeat South Dakota State.
The Matadors are led by their two front court players,
Heard and Chitwood. Heard is averaging a team-high 15.5 points while Chitwood stands at 13.1. The Matadors have also got a huge lift from senior forward Terrell Jones, who has scored in double figures in four of the Matadors’ last eight games. Jones is averaging 8.8 points so far through the season and 11.4 in conference play.
“He’s been one of our best players,” Braswell said of Jones. “He’s been one of our most consistent guys.”
Ironically, the Matadors and Gauchos faced off at the Matadome this past Thursday and also faced Cal Poly San Luis Obispo this past Saturday. CSUN next heads out on the road to Long Beach State for another showdown with the 49ers on Thursday, before going to Irvine to face the Anteaters on Saturday.
“We feel like we can keep rising,” Heard said. “We feel we can finish anywhere in the top (four).”
The Matadors stood at 3-2 in the Big West Conference, tied for third with UC Santa Barbara before facing the Gauchos on Jan. 25. The Matadors could not capitalize at home losing to the Gauchos 67-57, and falling to sixth place in the conference with a 3-3 record in conference play and a 10-9 overall record.