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Matadors Up Early Because It's Late

Men's basketball: With the season winding down, Braswell calls early morning practice at Northridge.

February 16, 2001|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — It wasn't exactly a wake-up call. Then again, it couldn't have come at a better time for the Cal State Northridge men's basketball team.

The Matadors needed a pick-me-up, and Coach Bobby Braswell was just the person to give them one.

On Tuesday, Braswell informed the team practice was scheduled for 6 a.m. the following day. The decision, Braswell said, had nothing to do with the Matadors' lackluster performance in an 89-84 loss last week at Idaho State, after which he criticized his team's motivation and discipline.

Three players had academic commitments Wednesday afternoon. But Braswell wasn't about to cancel practice.

Not with Northridge (15-9, 8-3 in conference play) locked in a first-place tie with Eastern Washington in the Big Sky Conference and five games remaining. Not with the Matadors in need of recapturing a head of steam.

Not after losing their claim to first place by losing a game they felt they should have won.

"We've done 6 a.m. practices before when I haven't been happy," Braswell said. "But when I told them Tuesday that we would be coming in at 6 a.m., nobody held their heads. Actually, I think they enjoyed it."

Well. . . .

"Our minds were there, but some of our bodies, I don't think were there all the way," center Brian Heinle said. "Usually, you're in there at 6 a.m. because of punishment. But it was all right. We got some stuff done."

Practice went as planned. And, for the most part, so has the season for Northridge, favored to win the Big Sky in its final season before moving to the Big West Conference.

Now, it's a matter of getting something else done.

With five games to play, Northridge plays the first three at home, beginning Saturday against Northern Arizona. The Matadors play Montana and Montana State next week before closing the regular season with games at Eastern Washington and Portland State.

Stakes are high. The Big Sky regular-season champion earns the right to host the six-team conference tournament--an important goal for the Matadors, 8-1 at home this season. The tournament champion receives a bid to the NCAA tournament next month.

The Matadors' loss at home was to Eastern Washington, 88-75.

"We put it to our players that if we want it, we're going to have to take it," Braswell said. "Our guys are going to have to earn their playing time in practice."

Northridge has been the talk of the town at times in what has been a breakthrough season. The Matadors began with a bang with their first victory over UCLA, 78-74, at Pauley Pavilion. Northridge followed with a 70-69 loss at Nevada Las Vegas and challenged USC in a 99-90 loss at the Sports Arena.

But there have been bumps in the road. The biggest came Saturday, when the Matadors struggled to keep pace with Idaho State, which snapped a seven-game losing streak against the Matadors.

The loss led to a locker-room tirade by Braswell, who blamed the players for overlooking an opponent.

Throughout the season, Northridge players have acknowledged opponents will be motivated to play them. But the Matadors' apparent lack of motivation at times has made Braswell bristle.

Players were visibly dejected after the loss to Idaho State.

"It's something we're concerned with," guard Markus Carr said. "Hopefully, this will be a learning experience."

Carr admitted the Matadors might be guilty of looking ahead.

Eastern Washington has defeated Northridge five consecutive times and the Matadors have not won at Cheney, Wash., in four seasons. The Eagles play their next three games at Portland State, Idaho State and Cal State Sacramento--the Big Sky's bottom three--before closing at home against Northridge and Northern Arizona.

Braswell declined to speculate on possible scenarios, but a showdown with Eastern Washington might determine where the tournament is played.

"It probably will," Heinle said. "But we have our destiny in our hands and we can beat anybody anywhere. We know we're in a good position, a place where a lot of teams want to be. We're just trying to compete and be ready to win."

Northridge lost at Northern Arizona, 76-75, and swept Montana and Montana State on the road.

With three consecutive games at home, the Matadors are where they want to be--for now.

"If someone had told me before the season that with five games to go we'd be in first, I'd have been elated," Braswell said. "The bottom line is, five games to go and three are at home."

*

NORTHERN

ARIZONA

(12-10, 6-5)

at

CS NORTHRIDGE

(15-9, 8-3)

Saturday at 7:05 p.m.

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