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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Matadors Out to Turn Big Sky Upside Down

Men's basketball: Fifth-seeded Northridge meets Weber State in first round of conference tournament.

March 08, 2000|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Big Sky Conference preseason forecast was inaccurate.

Montana and Eastern Washington, tabbed to finish sixth and seventh in the coaches and media polls, will have first-round byes today when the conference's six-team men's basketball tournament begins at Montana's Adams Center.

Weber State (18-9), an overwhelming choice to repeat as conference champion, struggled to a fourth-place finish and will play fifth-seeded Cal State Northridge (18-9) in a first-round game tonight. Third-seeded Northern Arizona (17-10) plays Portland State (15-13) in the other first-round game.

The championship game is scheduled for Saturday night with the winner advancing to the NCAA tournament.

"It doesn't matter what anyone's record is now," Coach Bobby Braswell of Northridge said. "Right now you're going to have six hungry teams."

Northridge and Weber State split two games this season and finished with 9-6 conference records.

The Matadors have qualified for the tournament each of their four seasons in the Big Sky. This season, Northridge limped through its road schedule, going 3-5 in conference and allowing a school-record 113 points in a loss at Weber State in January.

But the Matadors were 12-1 at home and enter the tournament with a three-game winning streak, including a 76-62 victory over Weber State last week at Northridge.

"Right now, we're in good shape," Braswell said. "If we play hard and play smart, we can beat anybody."

The Matadors haven't been as sharp down the stretch as they were in early season road victories over Fresno State and Oregon. Picked to finish third in the Big Sky, Northridge so far has fallen short of expectations.

Forward Andre Larry, arguably the Matadors' best player, left the team in January for personal reasons, only to return after missing three games. Larry, averaging 12.9 points, slowly has returned to form and team chemistry appears to be returning.

Center Brian Heinle has led Northridge in scoring all season. Heinle, averaging 16.2 points, has scored in double figures in four consecutive games after weathering a late-season slump.

"We're going to have to pick it up a notch," Heinle said. "We've got to get everyone together with one goal in mind."

Forward Jeff Parris has been Northridge's most dominant player down the stretch. Parris had 23 points and 10 rebounds in a victory over Sacramento State on Saturday.

Parris, a senior, sat out his freshman season after losing an appeal with the NCAA. He is expected to be granted another year of eligibility and return next season.

"Jeff Parris has stepped his game way up," Braswell said. "I'm very proud of him. I don't anticipate anything denying him from coming back."

Parris, the first recruit signed by Braswell at Northridge four years ago, started 22 games last season but missed the Big Sky tournament because of a back injury. Northridge lost to Montana State, 91-90, in the opening round.

The Matadors also played without Rico Harris, who had been suspended by Braswell during the season and eventually quit.

"It's good to be going into the tournament this year with some momentum," Braswell said. "Last year, we had injuries and defections."

Things haven't gone as planned this season across the Big Sky. Eastern Washington, sixth last season, came within a victory of hosting its first conference tournament, losing to Montana, 77-75, at Eastern Washington in the regular-season finale.

No Eastern Washington player ranks among Big Sky statistical leaders. But the Eagles, ignited in January by a length-of-the-floor basket that resulted in victory at Idaho State, were 5-3 on the road.

Montana, which last hosted and won the Big Sky title in 1991, had the conference's best road record at 6-2. Matt Williams averages 19 points and is the Big Sky's leading rebounder, averaging 10.2 a game.

Harold Arceneaux of Weber State, last season's Big Sky most valuable player, leads the conference in scoring, averaging 22.8 points. Arceneaux has scored 40 points or more in two games this season. Guard Eddie Gill ranks third in the conference in scoring, averaging 16.4 points.

Northern Arizona began 0-4 in conference before winning 11 consecutive games. The Lumberjacks' streak ended Saturday with an 84-73 loss to Weber State.

Ross Land of Northern Arizona leads the Big Sky with 73 three-point baskets. Seven-foot center Dan McClintock averages 15.3 points and 6.7 rebounds.

Portland State's fortunes sagged when standout forward Ime Udoka suffered a season-ending knee injury Feb. 24 at Northern Arizona.

The Big Sky women's tournament also begins today at Montana. The host Grizzlies and Cal State Northridge have first-round byes.

BIG SKY TOURNAMENT

Cal State Northridge

vs.

Weber State

Tonight, 7:30

at Adams Center

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