AMARILLO, Tex. — It's happened to the Cal State Fullerton women's basketball team with agonizing regularity all season. They come close, they fight, they scrap, it's in their hands and then it's snatched away.
We are speaking here of victories. And, after the Titans' 71-68 loss to Texas Tech Thursday night in the first round of the women's National Invitation Tournament, we can also add respect.
The Titans (17-11) came into this tournament as the eighth and last seed. That placed them against the top-seeded Red Raiders (23-7). Unfair, said Fullerton Coach Chris Gobrecht.
"What you saw tonight should have been the title game of this tournament," said Gobrecht, still fuming while standing in a cold hallway of the Amarillo Civic Center Coliseum after the game.
The Gobrecht argument: Fullerton has the toughest schedule of any team in the tournament, and Texas Tech Coach Marsha Sharp agrees. Nine out of the Titans' 11 losses have been to Top 10 teams, and four of Fullerton's conference opponents were engaged in NCAA tournament play Thursday night.
"I don't think the seeding was fair to either Texas or us," Gobrecht said. "It was just not good judgment. None of the games all day were as close as this one, and it was between the first and last seeds. You have to wonder if this was the championship game."
You can wonder all night in drafty hallways, but Fullerton still loses. The way the Red Raiders played Thursday before 2,832 partisan fans, it seemed the Titans were destined to be on the crying end of another frustrating squeaker.
The Titans used hot shooting and suffocating defense to fashion a 10-point lead through much of the first half. That, along with cold shooting from the Red Raiders, gave the Titans the point cushion through which they fell when their shots wouldn't fall in the second half.
"They are a great defensive ball club and they kept us out of our offensive pattern more than we wanted in the first half," Sharp said. Sharp and the Red Raiders anticipated the Titans' nose-to-nose defense--indeed the fear of that ambush possibly was the cause for Sharp to pace relentlessly before the game, snapping a handful of rubber bands.
Her tensions eased as her team adjusted to the press and got its own shooting untracked. That turnaround came in the person of 6-foot 2-inch Melinda Denham, who had a game-high 29 points and 12 rebounds. Denham, who had been averaging 9.7 points per game, shot 14 of 16 from the field.
"They might have been keying on Clay (Tricia, who had 16 points) and Melinda got by," Sharp said. "But she's been really playing well for us in the last half of the season. She's our blue-collar player."
She's also the pride of Earth, Texas. Although her dominance of the game was otherworldly.
"I was getting the shots in the second half," Denham said, smiling broadly through braces. "We are more of a second-half team, anyway. We also felt we had something to prove since we were not invited to the NCAA Tournament."
Oh yeah, the other Big Complaint here--Texas Tech, a team ranked in the Top 20 all season, was snubbed by the more prestigious tournament.
Thursday, it was the Red Raiders' turn to snub. They came on in the second half and used a full-court press of their own to frustrate Fullerton. Denham's shooting sparked her Texas Tech teammates to 58% shooting from the field in the second half. Fullerton shot 35% in the second half.
"There are no excuses. No one played really well for us, no one played badly for us," Gobrecht said. "We just fell asleep for a 10-minute stretch in the half and when we woke up, we were down by 10 points."
And when Fullerton woke up, the Titans were hit in the face with disappointment, again.
Fullerton will play West Virginia in the consolation round today.
Teri Withers, getting most of her points inside, led the Titans with 15 points. Meg Gallagher had 14 points and 9 rebounds for Fullerton.
The tournament's top seeds advanced Thursday in a full day of play. Second-seeded Florida (21-8) beat seventh-seeded Montana (22-8), 70-49. Third-seeded Drake (24-4) beat West Texas State (25-5), 96-90. Fourth-seeded Louisiana State (19-9) beat fifth-seeded Western Virginia (18-9), 69-57.