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Matadors at Point of No Return

Men's basketball: Northridge can avoid another Eastern Washington trip with a victory over nemesis Eagles tonight.

March 01, 2001|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHENEY, Wash. — For Cal State Northridge, the road to the Big Sky Conference championship runs through Eastern Washington.

At least once. Hopefully, not twice.

Which makes the Matadors' task tonight a simple one: Win against the Eagles at Reese Court and return home for the most exciting week in the history of Northridge basketball.

Lose, and pretty much plan on packing for a return trip to Washington.

The Big Sky tournament, with its champion earning a berth to the NCAA tournament, will be played March 8-10.

Question is, will it be at Northridge or Eastern Washington?

Northridge (18-9, 11-3 in the Big Sky) can clinch the regular-season title with a victory over the Eagles (15-9, 10-4) and with it the right to host to the tournament at the Matadome.

Eastern Washington, which defeated the Matadors, 88-75, at Northridge, can move into a first-place tie, then clinch hosting the tournament Friday with a victory at home over Northern Arizona.

For the Matadors, who have lost five in a row against Eastern Washington and haven't won at Reese Court in three years, two trips to Washington in two weeks is too much.

"We're anxious to get up there and get it done," guard Markus Carr said. "Of course, we want to have [the tournament] here at home. I have a real anxious feeling."

Center Brian Heinle said he hasn't slept much this week.

"I just wish the game was sooner," Heinle said. "All these nights I'm trying to sleep and my blood starts rushing. Everyone's antsy. We have a lot of incentives."

Indeed, hosting the tournament is paramount. With an unprecedented trip to the NCAA tournament within its reach, Northridge administrators committed at midseason to hosting the tournament at the 1,600-seat Matadome, where the Matadors are 12-1 this season and 24-2 in two seasons.

Moments after the Matadors' victory Saturday over Montana State, Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell addressed the fans, thanking them for their support and promising to bring the Big Sky tournament to the Matadome.

"I've always tried to get people to understand that this is the Valley's university and it's the only Division I school in the Valley," Braswell said. "I love for the people of the Valley to get to see good Division I basketball."

Moving to a larger venue would allow for more ticket sales--the prime source of revenue for the host school, which must pay $205,000 to the Big Sky for the right to host. The money is divided among the conference's other eight teams.

Northridge began selling tickets last week, and sales have gone well. Dick Dull, Northridge athletic director, said the school is seeking corporate sponsorship to subsidize the tournament.

But administrators all but concede the school will lose money hosting the tournament.

"We have reconciled the fact that we may not make money on the tournament," Dull said. "But we're planning it as if we're going to get it. To put it somewhere else doesn't make sense. We saw this as the best way of getting into the 64-team [NCAA] tournament."

Exposure for the university is a greater goal, Dull said.

The tournament semifinals on March 9 will be televised live by Fox Sports and the tournament final March 10 will be televised live by ESPN2.

A trip to the NCAA tournament would greatly enhance Northridge's growing stature as a Division I program. The Matadors' victory over UCLA in November could factor heavily when it comes to seeding. Moreover, recruiting would surely improve.

"It would be a dream come true for a lot of people," Braswell said. "It's been my goal ever since I got here. But I don't really want to talk about that until we take care of what we need to do this week."

History does not favor Northridge. The Eagles are 9-4 against the Matadors and have proven to be their toughest Big Sky opponent in recent years.

Eastern Washington had four seniors combine for 69 points and out-rebounded the Matadors, 37-26, in a victory at the Matadome on Jan. 20

Heinle, who probably will be selected the Big Sky's most valuable player, said the Matadors will be ready.

"We haven't played well against them and they seem to think they have our number," Heinle said. "They come in determined. But I've got a little something in my bag too."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THIS WEEK IN THE BIG SKY

CS NORTHRIDGE at EASTERN WASHINGTON

Tonight at 7

Also playing today:

Weber State at Idaho State

CS Sacramento at Montana

Northern Ariz. at Portland State

Friday's game

Northern Ariz. at Eastern Washington

Saturday's games

CS Sacramento at Idaho State

Weber State at Montana State

CS Northridge at Portland State

*

College Focus

* Although Northridge still must beat Eastern Washington, the Matadors last week began selling tickets for the Big Sky Conference tournament. D14

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