BILLINGS, Mont. — Someday, Cal State Northridge is going to be the favorite in an important basketball game.
It can't go on like this much longer.
Picked to finish seventh in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. during the preseason, the Matadors were underdogs right through their very last conference game against highly regarded Cal State Los Angeles.
Northridge won, advancing to the Division II West Regionals here.
And who did they draw? The tournament hosts, of course. A team ranked No. 4 nationally in the latest polls, and a team that had not lost a home game all season.
Who could call it surprising, then, when unranked and unsung Northridge beat Eastern Montana, 70-59, Friday night--sending a partisan Yellowjackets' crowd estimated at 2,500 in an angry bee-line out the door.
Certainly not the Northridge players, who say they're used to being the unloved upsetters.
"It was the same thing in the CCAA," said guard Mike Almeido. "Nobody gave us credit at the start of the season and we won. Now they didn't give us any credit again. They seeded us fourth in a four-team tournament. That's all right. After the game, they'd better give us credit. We've showed them all."
And so goes the rallying cry.
Next on the list is Cal State Hayward, which pulled an upset of its own in Friday's other regional game.
The Pioneers (20-7), who are also unranked, defeated the regionals' second seed, 16th-ranked Norfolk State, 64-61.
Northridge (20-9), plays Hayward in the regional championship game today at 4 p.m. (PST). The winner earns the right to advance to the tournament quarterfinals against the winner of the North Central Regional. Eastern Montana and Norfolk will play for third place in the regional at 2 p.m.
The championship game will be a rematch of a non-conference game played at Hayward in December. Hayward won, 65-57, in overtime after erasing a seven-point Northridge lead with only five minutes left.
"It's a grudge match," Almeido said. "We haven't lost to any team twice this year and we don't plan on it happening now.
"We had the lead up there, but we folded."
That loss is still bitter, but it also might have been the turning point in Northridge's season. Since then, the Matadors have won 15 of their 18 games.
"That was definitely the turning point," said Northridge center Tom Ruetten. "Up to that point, we'd really played iffy. Sporadic at best. Since then, we've been a different team. A real team. We play team defense and team offense. Everyone rebounds and everyone scores."
And so it was against Eastern Montana, as four Matadors scored in double figures while a stifling zone defense left the Yellowjackets' shooting percentage as low as the temperature outside.
Eastern Montana made only 21 of 64 field-goal attempts (33%) in its poorest shooting outing of the season. And when the Yellowjackets missed, they didn't get many second chances.
Credit the Northridge front line with that. While CSUN forward Dale Brandsberg and centers Ruetten and Wayne Fluker pounded away underneath with Eastern Montana's best rebounders, James Wells and Curt Brott, Matador forward Larry White spent much of the evening above the rim, grabbing a season-high 17 rebounds.
"A lot of the credit has to go to the other guys," said White, who also scored 13 points. "Their banging around left me free to get up. That's what Coach (Pete) Cassidy wanted me to do, concentrate on staying in and rebounding instead of releasing and filling the lane on the fast break."
The strategy worked, particularly early, as Northridge jumped out to an 8-0 lead, quieting what had been a raucous crowd.
Said Almeido: "We never let the crowd into the game, and that was a key."
The Yellowjackets never had the lead, but they did tie the score once, 10-10, throwing a scare into Cassidy.
"I thought our jumping out to a lead like that was less of a factor than them coming back like that," Cassidy said. "That concerned me, but we held them off."
The Matadors led, 34-27, at the half and held on despite 22 turnovers.
Said Cassidy: "I tell them we can have 10 or 12 turnovers and live with that. What do they give me, 22? There's certainly nothing artistic about that stat."
Their shooting was pretty, though. For the 24th time this season, the Matadors shot better than 50% from the floor (20 of 37). They also hit 30 of 41 free-throw attempts, outscoring their hosts by 13 points at the line.
The Yellowjackets attempted 27 more field goals than Northridge, but made only one more basket.
Almeido led all scorers with 18 points, while Ruetten added 15 to go with 10 rebounds.
Wells led the Yellowjackets in scoring with 14, while Darryl Roberts had 12 and Jeff Andrade had 10. Wells also had 8 rebounds.
Regional Notes Cal State Hayward had the worst record of any college basketball team in the nation last year, 1-25. Coach Gary Hulst has a new starting lineup this year that is made up of two redshirts and three community college transfers. . . .
Hayward's top players are Cye Adams and Ricardo Toyloy, both juniors from New York. Adams averages 14.8 points per game, but was held to 7 against Norfolk State. Toyloy averages 13.8, but had 18 against Norfolk. The star of the Pioneers' opening round win was guard Michael Harris, a junior college transfer from Fresno. Harris, who was also recruited by Northridge out of Fresno City College, scored 22 points. . . .
Hayward's starting center, Jim Moran, is the national Division II high jump champion. He never played basketball before playing for the Pioneers, but averages 7.6 points 6 rebounds a game. Northridge holds a 4-1 series edge over the Pioneers.