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Matadors Get Right Down to Business

Men's basketball: Northridge takes charge from the start and protects Big Sky lead by trouncing Montana, 92-68.

February 23, 2001|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Cal State Northridge took care of business Thursday night. On the court and at the box office.

The first-place Matadors maintained their one-game advantage in the Big Sky Conference, leading from start to finish in a 92-68 rout of Montana before 1,362 at Northridge.

Northridge (17-9, 10-3 in the Big Sky), with three regular-season games to play, completed its first season sweep of Montana (10-15, 5-9) while moving closer to clinching the right to host the six-team conference tournament March 8-10.

Marco McCain's three-point basket in the opening minute ignited a 10-2 run and the Matadors, as the saying goes, never looked back.

Meanwhile, their followers were looking forward.

Tickets for the Big Sky tournament sold rapidly in the Matadome lobby during the game. The school began taking orders Thursday and had sold more than 200 by tipoff.

Capacity of the Northridge gym is 1,600.

Northridge plays its final home game Saturday against Montana State before closing the regular season with games at Eastern Washington and Portland State.

Eastern Washington, a 77-64 winner over Idaho State on Thursday, is a game behind Northridge and beat the Matadors earlier in the season.

"I don't know if we're peaking right now; I don't like that terminology," Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell said. "I just felt we had a good basketball game [Thursday night]. It might have been the best 40 minutes we played all season.

"I challenged the guys to be business-like. Just be a great team [Thursday night]."

Center Brian Heinle, a favorite to be the conference's most valuable player, recorded his 15th double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds.

Forward Jeff Parris, nursing a sore back the last two weeks, came off the bench and scored 11 points in 13 minutes.

Guard John Burrell added 12 points off the bench.

Sophomore Lionel Benjamin, starting in place of Parris for the second consecutive game, had a career-high eight points.

"We got a lead and didn't lose our focus," Braswell said. "Our guys competed, even when the reserves came in. We've got to play our best basketball because people are fighting for their lives to get into the playoffs."

Despite winning for the fifth time in six games, Northridge players were cautiously optimistic.

Eastern Washington defeated the Matadors, 88-75, last month at Northridge. The Matadors are 7-8 on the road this season.

Parris and Burrell, hobbled by a pulled hamstring, are recovering slowly.

Guard Markus Carr, troubled by an ankle sprain, played a season-low 19 minutes, scoring eight points.

"We're starting to play a little more as a team, a little harder and smarter," Carr said.

"[Braswell] didn't want to pat us on the back too much."

Heinle's 10 points in the first half carried Northridge to a 44-32 halftime lead.

"We weren't about to give up anything on our home court," said Heinle, who had at least 20 points for the 13th time this season. "Right now, we're playing pretty good.

"But there is always room for improvement."

Montana hurt its cause with turnovers and poor shooting.

The Grizzlies had 18 turnovers, while shooting only 40% from the field. Four of their shots failed to hit the rim.

Coach Don Holst of Montana said the Matadors are a much more difficult opponent on their own floor.

"If they play like they did [Thursday night], they'll win the league and the tournament," Holst said. "They're senior-laden and it shows."

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