One way to describe the CSUN Matador women’s basketball teams’ important two-game home stretch this past week starting with Thursday’s game against the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Mustangs, came from senior guard Krisztina Fuleki.
“Part one of our (two-part) series,” Fuleki said.
Part one is in the books, and CSUN made sure it had a happy ending, as it held off a feisty Cal Poly squad 67-60 at the Matadome Thursday night. The win snapped the Mustangs’ eight game winning streak and moved themselves closer to cementing second place in the Big West Conference.
The top two teams will receive a bye into the semifinals, meaning they won’t have to report to the Anaheim Convention Center until Friday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. UC Riverside already has clinched the Big West Regular Season title, so the second slot came down to Saturday’s showdown between Northridge and the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos. The loser will have to report on Thursday afternoon at 12 noon.
Fittingly, playing the first of its final two games at the Matadome, the seniors led the way for the Matadors. Forward Ofa Tulikihihifo scored a team-high 21 points, 17 of them in the second half during times when the Mustangs threatened to get back in the game. Tulikihihifo also grabbed 10 rebounds.
“My shots we’re kind of flat in the first half,” Tulikihihifo said. “I focused on all the little things, like boxing out, defense and stuff like that, and also knocking down free throws.”
Fuleki scored 17 points, LaJoyce King scored 13 points and Jamie McCaa grabbed 11 rebounds. Jessica Eggleston and Megan Harrison led Cal Poly with 19 points apiece. Eggleston also grabbed 11 rebounds.
Following a slow start, the Matadors heated up with an 11-1 run that turned a 6-2 deficit into a 13-7 lead. Cal Poly tied the game at 15 on a Harrison score, but a McCaa score and a Fuleki triple gave CSUN a 20-15 lead. Tamara Wells made a pair of free-throws at 7:49, but that was the Mustangs’ final points of the first half, as CSUN ended the first half on a 10-0 run to lead 30-17 at the break.
However, the Cal Poly team that entered the Matadome with eight straight wins finally showed up to start the second half. Eggleston started the Mustang rally, scoring inside at 19:26 and converting a three-point play 14 second later to cut the lead under double-digits at 30-22.
“We always come out flat in the second half,” Fuleki said. “Coach (Schulz) called a timeout, chewed our butts out and from then on, we knew we couldn’t let it go.”
Kaysen Brennan hit a three-pointer in front of the Mustang bench to cut the lead to five, but then King stopped the bleeding by converting a layup at 16:52 and drew the foul on Becky Tratter in the process.
King missed the free-throw, but Tulikihihifo grabbed the rebound, passed the ball back to King, who then drove in for a quick score. Tulikihihifo hit a 20-footer at 16:14 and converted one-of-two free-throws to raise the Matador lead back to double digits at 37-25 at the 15:53 mark.
The Mustangs though refused to go away, going on a 12-3 run to cut the lead to 40-37 at 11:45. Cal Poly continued to make several runs at CSUN throughout the next four minutes, getting as close as two at 51-49 with just over seven minutes left, but the Matadors made one more spurt that put them in control the rest of the way.
Tulikihihifo nailed another 20-footer, King scored on a layup as did Tulikihihifo a minute later to give Northridge a 57-49 lead with 5:34 left in the game. Cal Poly fought on, but the Matadors showed its nerves of steel towards the end.
“We had to stay aggressive on them (Cal Poly) because they’re an aggressive team,” Schulz said.