Cal State Fullerton, which has spent much of the first month of the season shuffling a lineup affected by injury, illness or ineptitude, tried its newest against Pepperdine Monday night.
What resulted was a game as up-and-down as the Titans' season has been so far. Fullerton jumped to an 8-0 lead in the first four minutes, then fell behind by as many as 15 before coming back to cut the lead to two in the final minutes before losing, 80-71, in front of 1,888 in Pepperdine's Firestone Fieldhouse.
Richard Morton, who led the Titans with 23 points, hit a three-point shot with 1:05 remaining that cut the Pepperdine lead to 73-71. But Pepperdine (5-3) made 7 of 8 free throws in the final minute to hold off the Titans.
Levy Middlebrooks led the Waves with 19 points, Craig Davis added 17 and Tom Lewis, formerly of Mater Dei High School, had 16.
Fullerton trailed, 75-71, with 26 seconds remaining but Henry Turner missed an off-balance shot, and Pepperdine's Davis made two free throws after Fullerton fouled him.
"Those were the same off-balance shots Turner has been making," said George McQuarn, Fullerton coach. "All we wanted was a quick shot, a time out, and a steal off the press. We needed two possessions."
Fullerton (2-4) has yet to win on the road, but has won its only home games by large margins.
It has seemed to McQuarn that if it's not one thing ailing his Titans this season, it's another.
"We've had a hard time establishing any continuity as a team," McQuarn said. "It's very difficult establishing offensive rhythm with different people playing."
Turner, the Titans' second-leading scorer, missed two full games with an ankle injury. Vincent Blow, who has started twice, was out three games with the flu. This time, it was Eugene Jackson who was missing, sidelined by a back injury.
"Losing a center is one thing," McQuarn said. "Losing a point guard is a big difference."
Morton, Turner, Blow, Van Anderson and Marlon Vaughn were the newest edition of the starting Titans.
Vaughn "struggled," McQuarn said, but he still scored 14 points, more than Jackson's 9.2 average.
Jackson, who injured his back in Fullerton's 67-43 victory over Utah Saturday, remains doubtful for the Titans' home game against the University of San Diego Wednesday, meaning Vaughn will probably get at least one more start.
"I thought I did all right," Vaughn said. "The fellows were behind me and told me to be more confident."
Said McQuarn: "At least maybe this way he'll get better faster."
For all the Titans' troubles, they were in the thick of the game with six minutes remaining. A goaltending call against Pepperdine on a three-point shot by Vaughn, plus a 12-foot jump shot by Vaughn, cut Pepperdine's lead to 69-63 with 6:14 remaining.
Pepperdine was in the midst of three-minute scoreless streak, but Fullerton blew numerous chances to narrow the lead more, including a botched four-on-one break.
"We should have executed," Vaughn said. "We got the turnovers like we were supposed to. We just didn't complete the plays."
Fullerton had used a halfcourt trap to come back, one that Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick said "really bothered" his team. But the Titans couldn't get all the way back.
"Sometimes you get down too many points to come back," Harrick said. "After it was 8-0, we played awfully well."
Still, the Titans had their chances.
"We had three, four, maybe five," McQuarn said.
The Titans' struggle inside continues.
Bobby Adair scored seven points and had seven rebounds against Pepperdine. But Blow, who had missed the past three games with the flu, scored only two and had five rebounds. Oval Miller scored two points with no rebounds, and John Sykes did not score.
"Come conference time, this won't even matter, what happened in December," McQuarn said.