Outside the Cal State Northridge basketball locker room hangs a picture taken during the team's three-game swing through the wide-open spaces of Utah at the start of the season.
The players are all dressed in Old West garb, with some brandishing shooting irons and wearing ace-in-the-hole grins. And there in the right corner, clad in a buckskin coat and black hat, is head coach Pete Cassidy, foreman of the Matador basketball ranch.
In the photo, Cassidy exhibits a quizzical look. Is he, perhaps, confused by his latest team--which has gained notoriety for falling asleep in the final minutes of close games?
The squad can slay that reputation tonight when it travels to Cal State Dominguez Hills (9-4) to take aim on the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. basketball title.
After winning three straight and four of its last five, Northridge appears ready.
"I think the whole team has matured so much in the last 14 games," explained 6-2 guard Mike Almeido, a senior from Canoga Park who has averaged 11.4 points per game. "Turnovers have been our biggest problem. The main thing is we weren't concentrating. We were just going through the motions, not really executing. "
When the team has lost concentration, it has usually lost the game. In their Biola University and Cal State Hayward defeats, the Matadors held advantages late in the game but fell victim to a combination of turnovers, fouls and poor free-throw shooting.
"I'm not too happy about the turnovers," said Cassidy, whose team is wasting an average of 17 scoring opportunities per game. "I think it's foolishness--forced passes and shots. I think (the team) realizes the urgency of the situation."
Almeido, one of four regulars scoring on more than 50% of his shots, has noticed a change in the team over the last five games.
"I think we're playing with more patience, we're not forcing the shots. We're not worrying about scoring, just doing something positive. And I think that's important," said Almeido.
Cassidy, who celebrated his 200th career coaching victory earlier this year, agrees.
"Our offense in particular has come a long way," said the head coach, whose squad visits Chapman College at 7:30 Saturday night.
Cassidy's award for best player in a starting role goes to forward Larry White, who currently leads the team in scoring at 12.5 points per game. White also leads the team in steals and blocked shots.
"Day in and day out, he's probably playing the best basketball of his life," Cassidy said of the 6-5 senior, who averaged 12.2 points a game last year. Other Matadors in double figures include Mike Lopez (11.6) and Dale Brandsberg (10.1).
"We're executing better, our shot selection has improved and so has our ability to attack pressure defenses. We had an awful lot of new people this year and they had to learn a lot of things fast. Learning to apply things can be difficult, so you'll go down the pipe sometime," added Cassidy.
But the coach sees a bright side to those kinds of losses.
"I think going through those early (close) games will give us experience dealing with pressure," he said. "Most nights in the conference, I don't see anybody blowing anybody out."
Added Almeido: "I think (the close games) are a big plus. We know what it's like and we know what we have to do. But it does kind of get to you."
The Matadors split a pair of overtime games last year with Dominguez Hills, winning, 49-45, and losing, 61-59, in double overtime. . . . CSUN leads the Dominguez Hills series 9-5 and holds a 20-12 mark over Chapman College. . . . Sophomore William Alexander leads Dominguez Hills in scoring, with a 14.7 average. Senior Kevin Burrell is next at 14.6. . . . Junior Rafael Meza leads the team with a 62.5 field-goal percentage (40 for 64). His home-court performance, however, is even more impressive at 26 for 33.