CHENEY, Wash. — So that's why Cal State Northridge had so much trouble winning close games all season. No pep talks from NFL Hall of Famers.
Walter Payton, in town to speak at a banquet, gave the Matadors an unsolicited motivational speech on Wednesday night, and Thursday night they beat Eastern Washington, 78-75, in a Big Sky Conference game before 1,148 at Reese Court.
By erasing a 10-point deficit with stifling defense in the final six minutes, the Matadors (9-12, 5-6 in conference play) won their first game decided by seven points or fewer, won their first Big Sky road game and snapped a four-game losing streak.
Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell ran into Payton in the team's hotel in Spokane. Later that night, Payton called Braswell in his room and asked if he could speak to the Matadors. Without any cues from Braswell, Payton seemed to know just what to say.
"He said you just have to believe you can win," Braswell said.
Less than 24 hours after the 45-minute speech, the Matadors showed that they did believe. Eastern Washington took a 68-58 lead with 6:10 to play.
"We just looked up at the score and said enough is enough," said Northridge's Trenton Cross, who scored a career-high 30 points.
Northridge stopped Eastern Washington on six consecutive possessions, forcing five turnovers in the process. At the other end of the court, they scored 13 consecutive points--with four of the possessions keyed by offensive rebounds--to take a 71-68 lead with 2:08 to play.
After the Eagles' Jon Berger made a layup with 1:31 to play to pull his team within 71-70, Northridge guard Lucky Grundy hit an off-balance three-pointer as the shot clock wound down, pushing the lead back to 74-70 with 58 seconds left.
After Northridge converted on a couple of press-breaking baskets to go up 78-70, Eastern Washington made one last rush.
The Eagles scored five quick points and had the ball with a chance to tie after Cross missed two free throws with 10 seconds left. But Cross rebounded Travis King's missed three-pointer.
The Matadors took a huge step toward making the conference tournament. Last-place Eastern Washington (2-10, 6-16) is only one loss or one Northridge victory from being eliminated from contention.