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BIG WEST MEN'S TOURNAMENT

Matadors Hanging Close at End

March 14, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Cal State Northridge's storybook run through the Big West Conference tournament was heading toward an unlikely ending against the league's hottest and, in the end, best team.

As this edition of The Times went to press, Pacific held a shaky, 62-60 lead over the Matadors with five minutes remaining in the championship game Saturday night in the Anaheim Convention Center.

Sixth-seeded Northridge pulled off upset victories over Cal State Fullerton, UC Santa Barbara and Utah State to advance to its first tournament final in its third season in the Big West. But the second-seeded and regular season co-champion Tigers brought along a 14-game winning streak, the second-longest in the nation.

The Matadors cut the deficit to 37-34 early in the second half on a three-point basket by Joseph Frazier. Pacific responded with a three-point basket by Tom Cockle that triggered a run of 10 consecutive points.

Four frenetic days appeared to catch up with the Matadors. Either they couldn't run their offense to get quality shots or they missed the open ones they got.

Northridge missed nine of its first 11 tries and Pacific took full advantage. David Doubley scored six early points on drives to the basket to force the Matadors to switch from a man-to-man defense to a 1-3-1 zone.

The Tigers, who have the second-longest winning streak in the nation at 15 games, started to hit from the outside. Tyler Newton's bank shot gave them a 20-4 lead.

Myree Bowden and Cockle had steals on consecutive possessions and converted them into points to quell a brief Northridge rally. Miah Davis' second three-pointer of the first half built the Tigers' lead to 19.

As they had shown in their stunning semifinal victory over No. 22-ranked Utah State, the Matadors fought back in the toughest of situations. They scored 20 of the last 26 points in the first half, with Boylan scoring the last nine.

His three-pointer cut the deficit to 37-29 and gave the Matadors a glimmer of hope.

Northridge's run has little resemblance to the NCAA tournament team of 2001. That team had veteran leadership and was expected to win the Big Sky Conference.

This team has one senior only, Michael Scott, and a freshman, Thomas Shewmake, as the starting center. And there has been a season's worth of issues from the academic ineligibility of starting forward Eto Onyenegecha to the 11-game suspension of Frazier and junior forward Chris Davis.

The Matadors survived those issues and appeared to be a dangerous team after Braswell lifted the suspensions of Frazier and Davis a week before the Big West tournament. They ended the regular season by falling on their face, losing consecutive home games to UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton.

Instead, the last four days will be among the best moments in Bobby Braswell's tenure at Northridge.

"It's been one of the most fulfilling experiences in all of my life to be associated with them and the heart and level of commitment and dedication, not just to the cause but to each other," he said. "As a coach you dream of having a team of guys that don't care about anything but the name that's on the front of that shirt. This group is all about that."

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