Thursday afternoon, Cal State Fullerton's basketball team learned that senior point guard Kevin Henderson has a stress fracture in his foot, as well as a sprained ankle, and will be out for at least two more weeks. A few hours later, the Titans found out they could play well enough to win without him . . . for 40 minutes anyway.
When it came down to overtime, however, Fullerton came up way short and New Mexico State pulled out a 68-61 victory before 2,465 in Titan Gym in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. opener for both teams.
Fullerton (7-6) came out playing inspired defense, built a 13-point lead midway through the first half and never trailed in regulation. But all that inspiration seemed to vanish when the Aggies' Kenny Travis threw in a 22-foot fall-away (fall- down would be more accurate) three-pointer with two seconds left in regulation to tie the score, 59-59.
New Mexico State (6-3) made the most of the momentum. The Aggies got their first lead of the night on a Travis free throw with 5:00 still showing on the scoreboard when he was fouled trying to grab the tip after the jump ball. They increased it to two points on a Pierre Smith free throw with 2:38 left.
Then Gilbert Wilburn, who hit just 1 of 6 first-half field goal attempts, followed his own missed shot to make it 63-59 with 1:52 left. His pair of free throws with 22 seconds left boosted the Aggie margin to 8 and even the Titan faithful started heading for the exits.
"I think we played extremely well for 40 minutes," Fullerton Coach George McQuarn said. "But then Travis throws up that twisting, turning prayer with (Richard) Morton's hands in his face and the darn thing goes in. That took everything out of us. We were in a daze after that."
Travis led all scorers with 21, including two three-pointers. Wilburn, who had 10 rebounds, and Smith, who also had two three-point goals, added 18 each. And that pretty much sums up the Aggie offense.
"Fullerton's defense really bothered us tonight," said New Mexico State Coach Neil McCarthy, who was also more than bothered by the officiating. "This is the first opponent to play a man-to-man defense against us this season and it really caused problems. But we settled down and kept our poise."
McCarthy, whose looks of bewilderment turned to looks that could kill when a number of very questionable calls went against his team, would only say, "Some of those calls were pretty terrible, huh?"
The Titans had even less to say.
"I was right in his face," Morton said of Travis' shot. "I couldn't believe it."
He wasn't alone.
"It was just one of those nightmares," said Eugene Jackson, who is starting at point guard in place of Henderson.
But there were some bright spots for Fullerton, if McQuarn and Co. can rebound from Thursday night's depression to think about them.
The Titans, whose inside game could have been described as nonexistent much of the season, seem to have found a center . . . all 6-feet 6 1/2-inches of him. Herman Webster, who had a career-high 13 points in the first half against Pepperdine Saturday but was shut out after the intermission, responded with two good halves Thursday night. He had a game-high 11 rebounds and led Fullerton in scoring with 19 points, hitting 7 of 11 from the floor.
Sophomore guard Morton, who scored 16, hit 50% of his mostly long-range jumpers and sophomore forward Henry Turner grabbed 9 rebounds and scored 14 points.
Kerry Boagni and Tee Williamson, both 6-8 but neither much of a force on the boards until Thursday, each had nine rebounds as the Titans outrebounded the Aggies, 46-34.
But it was the three-point shot that beat Fullerton this time. The Titans may have gotten a bit of homecourt officiating help, but they couldn't find the outside range on the baskets they shoot at every day in practice.
Fullerton was 0 for 8 on three-point attempts. New Mexico State was 5 for 12, including one that made the absence of Henderson all the more painful.