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Cassidy Gets Rare Chance to Smile

February 15, 1996|JEFF FLETCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Without even looking at the scoreboard, you could tell what was going on Wednesday night at Matador Gym by looking at Pete Cassidy's face.

The Cal State Northridge basketball coach smiled. Not a big smile, but a smile nonetheless.

And for the normally stone-faced Cassidy to do that during a game, it meant the Matadors' were winning by at least 20.

They were on their way to a stunning 96-75 victory over Southern Utah in an American West Conference game played before a small crowd of 219 that saw Northridge's most-lopsided victory of the season.

"I think we focused and played hard for 40 minutes," point guard Trenton Cross said. "We played hard the whole game and didn't let up."

Cross scored a career-high 20 points on six-for-six shooting.

But the player of the game was junior Josh Willis, who scored a career-high 22 points. Rod Stinson, a junior walk-on, also had a career night, scoring 11 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.

Their games were particularly important because they filled a void left by Tom Samson, who was in foul trouble for most of the game.

"[Stinson's] contribution was really big," Cassidy said. "Josh played one of his finest games here."

The Matadors, 6-17, 2-2 in conference play, snapped a six-game losing streak against Southern Utah (11-12, 1-2). The last three defeats have come in games decided in the final minute.

"This is the sixth time I've played Southern Utah and it seems like we always lose close ones," Willis said. "It feels great to blow them out."

Although the Matadors began the game playing well, the scene was set for disaster midway through the first half when Samson, Northridge's most-reliable inside threat for the past month, was called for his third foul.

When he came out, not to return until midway through the second half, the score was tied, 14-14.

After Northridge put up two ill-advised three-point shots on its next two trips downcourt and Southern Utah converted two layups to take an 18-14 lead, it looked like the Matadors might be panicking.

But Willis and Stinson filled in nicely for Samson. Willis played perhaps his best half of the season, scoring 13 points. Stinson added four points, four rebounds and even two artistic assists.

Northridge stayed close to the Thunderbirds until the 3:37 mark of the first half, when Cross' three-point shot bounced high off the rim and fell through, giving the Matadors a 33-30 lead.

"That gave us a lot of momentum," said Cross, who laughed at the shot as he ran downcourt.

Cross scored four more points before the half and Gerald Rhoden made a three-pointer with 27 seconds left to give Northridge a 43-35 halftime lead.

The Matadors played near-flawless basketball for a stretch early in the second half, taking a 59-42 lead. They were drilling three-pointers, swishing soft jumpers and firing laser-like passes into the post to set up layups.

At one point, the players seemed so eager to get the ball downcourt to see what kind of highlight play they could pull off, Cassidy had to yell at them to slow down, to stay in the patient offense that had built the lead.

The lead ballooned to as many as 25 points in the second half.

"When we are going well it's just contagious," Willis said.

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