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Titans Close Out Season on Winning Note

March 06, 1994|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — Cal State Fullerton vs. Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament? Hey, why not?

If there's one sure thing going into this week's Big West Conference Tournament, it's that every team is capable of losing on any given night, which bodes well for the Fullertons of the world.

The Titans closed the regular season Saturday with a 79-63 victory over UC Santa Barbara. They improved to 8-18, 6-12 in the Big West, assuring they'll finish ahead of last-place UC Irvine.

Fullerton will play Nevada--a team the Titans have defeated twice this season--at 3 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the tournament at Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack Center.

If Fullerton can get by the Wolf Pack, what is next? New Mexico State, the league champion who will take a five-game road losing streak into the tournament? Nevada Las Vegas, a team the Titans beat on the road?

Anything can happen in a conference where all the teams are equal. Fullerton is entering tournament play on a roll, which in the Big West, ranked 18th among conferences in the NCAA's recent Ratings Percentage Index, means you're playing better than .500 ball over the last seven games.

"Everyone is getting beat, which is a good sign for us," said junior forward Darren Little, who led the Titans with 20 points Saturday. "No one is killing anyone else, so if we play hard like we did tonight, if we play well, we can beat anyone."

Sure, it sounds like the usual rhetoric from a team trying to keep its hopes up entering the tournament, but you can't overestimate the Big West. In what other conference can you go 7 minutes 42 seconds of the second half without scoring, like the Titans did Saturday, and still maintain control of a game against a team ahead of you in the standings?

"We should be totally optimistic going into the tournament," Fullerton Coach Brad Holland said. "I hope the team goes in thinking we can go some ways, because it's wide open. Let's play our best and see what happens."

The Titans hardly played their best Saturday, but with the Gauchos playing one of their worst games of the season, it didn't matter. Santa Barbara (13-16, 9-9) shot only 34.3% from the field, and when Fullerton went cold in the second half, leaving the door open for a Gaucho comeback, Santa Barbara failed to burst through.

The Titans took a 63-47 lead on Winston Peterson's jump hook with 11:12 remaining but didn't score again until Little's two free throws with 3:29 left.

The Gauchos went on a 9-0 run, well, it was more of a stroll--it took them more than six minutes to score those nine points, and they were only able to pull to within seven, 63-56. That gave Fullerton time to recover.

Little followed his foul shots with a fast-break basket, and Fullerton outscored Santa Barbara, 12-5, in the final 2:40 to pull away.

"They played good defense, but we were shooting the ball too quickly and not getting it inside," Holland said of the scoring drought. "We need to work the ball into Peterson and (Fred) Amos."

Peterson finished with 16 points and nine rebounds, and senior guard Greg Vernon had 13 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in the final home game of his four-year Fullerton career.

Danny Robinson added 12 points and made two of two three-pointers for Fullerton, which had a season-low nine turnovers and shot a season-high 87.5% from the free-throw line (21 of 24).

So, what about a Titan-Razorback rematch? Remember, the teams met before, when Arkansas eliminated Fullerton's Miracle on Nutwood team in the national quarterfinals in 1978. If Fullerton somehow manages to win the Big West tournament, the Titans probably would be the 64th seed and would draw top-ranked Arkansas.

"I would be happy to take on that challenge," Holland said. "Anything can happen when you get into a post-season tournament."

Especially in the Big West.

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