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Matadors Go Down Fighting

College basketball: Northridge, a victory away from NCAA tournament, loses to Montana, 82-79.

March 09, 1997|JEFF FLETCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Perspective came painfully for Cal State Northridge's basketball players, who never considered themselves underdogs, never thought anything less than a trip to the NCAA tournament could be satisfying.

But in the wake of Saturday night's 82-79 loss to Montana in the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game before 2,390 at the Walkup Skydome, they grudgingly took solace in the fact that they finally convinced the rest of the conference they were as good as they thought they were.

"No one expected little old Northridge to come this far," Derrick Higgins said. "We fought and we fought and we got to the championship . . . Now Northridge is on the map."

On the map? Certainly.

On the way to the NCAA tournament? Almost.

The Matadors trailed most of the first half and led most of the second, but the game was close throughout. They played well at both ends of the floor and led, 79-78, with 44 seconds to play when Montana center Bob Olson drove to the basket against Northridge's Kevin Taylor, who smacked the ball into Olson's face but also caught Olson's arm for a foul.

Olson hit both free throws to give the Grizzlies an 80-79 lead.

"I felt like it was a clean block myself," Taylor said. "I got the ball and then after he released it our hands touched."

Northridge was stopped when Chris Spoja stripped the Matadors' Keith Higgins on a drive with 24 seconds to play. After the steal, J.R. Camel made a 10-foot jumper to boost the Grizzlies' lead to 82-79 with 22 seconds left.

The Matadors' Trenton Cross got off two off-balanced three-point attempts in the final seconds, but neither was close.

Still, Northridge had little reason to be ashamed.

The Matadors (14-15), who finished with the most victories in any of their seven Division I seasons, shot 56.9% and held Montana to 43.1%.

Northridge put three players on the seven-man all-tournament team: Cross, the most valuable player, and Derrick and Keith Higgins. Cross scored 21 points, 17 in the second half. Derrick Higgins added 18.

And the Matadors, who were seeded sixth in the six-team tournament, beat two of the top three teams in the conference--Montana State and Northern Arizona--on consecutive nights before losing to second-seeded Montana (21-10).

"I want to say what a courageous effort Cal State Northridge put in," Montana Coach Blaine Taylor said. "The juice they had, the plays they had, they have so much to be proud of."

Northridge first-year Coach Bobby Braswell also found it hard to find much wrong with his team's effort.

"I couldn't be more proud of these young men," Braswell said. "I love them dearly. They have done everything that I have asked them to. They have played extremely hard for me, day in and day out, every game, every practice. I will never forget them."

Northridge took its biggest lead, 59-51, with 13:06 to play on Gerald Rhoden's four-point play.

But Montana, which will make its fourth trip to the NCAA tournament, kept fighting back.

"You have to give them credit," Braswell said.

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