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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Matadors Wind Up Being Only a Little Out of Their League

March 17, 2001|ERIC SONDHEIMER

DAYTON, Ohio — If Coach Bobby Braswell of Cal State Northridge could have borrowed a pair of Ruby slippers for his team's game against Kansas on Friday night, he would have clicked them three times and wished for a few bigger bodies.

The munchkins from the "Wizard of Oz" had it easier than the five overwhelmed Northridge players on the court at the end of the first half.

With its two tallest players, 6-foot-9 Brian Heinle and 6-5 Jeff Parris, on the bench because of foul trouble, Northridge went from a two-point lead to a 15-point halftime deficit and never recovered in dropping its Midwest Regional opener, 99-75.

Outrebounded, 46-25, the Matadors (22-10) had no answers for dealing with 6-10 Drew Gooden, 6-9 Nick Collison and 7-1 Eric Chenowith.

"It wasn't just the big men--it was the wing men crashing the boards too," Parris said. "We knew one of the main [ways] for us to stay close was to box out. We didn't do that."

There's only so much Braswell can ask of a team that exceeded expectations many times this season to make its first NCAA tournament appearance.

The Matadors found out early on that Kansas (25-6) is no Montana or Eastern Washington from the Big Sky Conference. At one point, guard Markus Carr had his lob pass intercepted, then faster than you can count to three, Kenny Gregory was slamming home a lob for Kansas.

"Tonight we played a very good basketball team that was really on a mission," Braswell said.

Kansas was seeded No. 4, Northridge No. 13. Matador players had been watching the growing number of first-round upsets on television, hoping they could move on like 15th-seeded Hampton and 13th-seeded Indiana State and Kent State.

The Jayhawks' 17-0 surge at the end of the first half was a Roy Williams-coached team executing at its best. Northridge never got closer than eight points in the second half despite launching 30 three-pointers on the night.

Collison made 11 of 13 shots and scored 23 points. Gooden made nine of 14 shots and scored 20 points.

"I have no regrets," Northridge guard Carl Holmes said. "We went out, fought and fought. They had some big runs on us, we had some big runs on them, but their size prevailed."

There are losses that hurt more than others, but no one associated with Northridge was going to let its accomplishments be forgotten just because its season came to an end.

Braswell took over a Northridge program five years ago with little to promote other than a dream to make it to the NCAA tournament. Boy, did he deliver, so well that he has become a coach Northridge might not be able to keep.

None other than Rick Pitino, the most sought-after coach in the land and a CBS commentator, said Friday, "I think he's a star on the rise. He'd be in my top three [candidates] of any coach in the country if I was an athletic director."

Braswell had isolated himself in recent weeks from the growing speculation other schools might approach him. He wanted to prevent his players from being distracted. But the phone calls will almost certainly start coming.

The good news for Northridge is there aren't that many jobs Braswell might want that are open. Nevada Las Vegas would seem appealing, but he starts down a list of higher-profiled candidates.

Braswell wasn't about to take away from the moment his team had worked so hard to achieve.

"I'm the head coach at Cal State Northridge and one of the proudest guys in the world," he said in deflecting questions about his future plans.

He praised the Northridge seniors that followed him to a school known more nationally for being the epicenter of the 1994 earthquake.

"I'm grateful they had a chance to experience this," he said. "Those guys were the dreamers. They came on board when there really was nothing to sell but wanting to be good and do something special. They believed."

Parris was originally a Prop 48 player forced to sit out his freshman year for failing to fulfill NCAA academic requirements. He got back that year and more, earning his degree and proving he was a terrific player and student. He scored 18 points and had 10 rebounds against Kansas.

"It's been a great experience," Parris said.

Braswell inspired an entire community and gave people such as Garry Phelps the chance to see their first NCAA tournament game. Phelps has coached boys' basketball at Palmdale High for 22 years. He sent Carr to Northridge and never had a player participate in the tournament until Friday. He arrived in town with his wife and daughter.

"It's a proud moment," Phelps said.

Holmes, who made Braswell his legal guardian when he was 14, doesn't know what his coach and mentor will do.

"I know he's a great coach and whatever school gets him will have a great team," he said.

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Eric Sondheimer can be reached at his e-mail address: eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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