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Cal State Northridge weathers storms

Matadors close in on a berth in the NCAA tournament despite a season filled with serious off-the-court problems.

March 12, 2009|Robyn Norwood

Cal State Northridge's basketball season has been like Shakespeare on a very small stage.

There is a father, seemingly betrayed by his son. A young athlete, thwarted and frustrated, pleading innocence after an arrest. Another who could have lost his life in a car accident, but instead has lost only the last weeks of his college career.

The drama has unfolded in front of an audience of few -- only 1,094 on average at Matadors home games -- but out of it has come an improbable triumph: Northridge is the regular-season champion of the Big West Conference, and the Matadors no longer want this painful season to end.

If Northridge wins its next two games to claim the Big West tournament and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, the team will take its place on the biggest stage in college basketball.

Win Friday and Saturday, and the team that lost leading scorer Deon Tresvant to an arrest and starting point guard Josh Jenkins to injuries in a car accident will be in the NCAA tournament's field of 65.

Win those two games, and Coach Bobby Braswell could be watching the NCAA selection show Sunday wondering how to manage his travel schedule when his 22-year-old son, Jeffrey, has a court appearance Monday morning.

Of all the twists of Northridge's season, that is the one that turned the most heads: Arrested along with Tresvant in an alleged January theft at an electronics store were the coach's son -- a Northridge student who is not on the team -- and freshman guard Dallas Rutherford, the son of the pastor at the Porter Ranch church where Braswell worships.

"We're getting through it," the elder Braswell said. "I love my son. These last few weeks and months obviously have been trying for all of us. I've seen a tremendous amount of growth in him."

Prosecutors allege the younger Braswell, an employee at a Porter Ranch store, logged onto a register using the password of another employee and invited the three young men -- Tresvant, Rutherford and actor Phannuel Gbewonyo, 28 -- to check out $6,600 in merchandise without paying.

Rutherford made restitution, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation and community service. He has taken a personal leave from the team.

Tresvant, Jeffrey Braswell and Gbewonyo have pleaded not guilty, with Braswell facing the most serious charges and up to five years in state prison.

"All four of these young men feel like they have ruined their lives," said Dudley Rutherford, pastor of Shepherd of the Hills church and father of the freshman guard.

Tresvant has not played since his early January arrest. He practiced until stopping abruptly after his Feb. 26 arraignment, when he was told he would not be able to play two days later on Senior Day, as his father said he had been promised.

Athletic Director Rick Mazzuto and school officials, facing the dilemma between being criticized for allowing a player facing felony charges to play and penalizing a player who has not been convicted, said the school decided to hold him out until his case was resolved.

Still, the player's father bristles about the dwindling days of his son's senior year.

"I don't know why the school is holding him out," Donald Tresvant said. "It's innocent until proven guilty. He's not suspended. But why go to practice if you're not going to play? I don't see why. He's never been in trouble."

The elder Tresvant contends his son was told he was being given a discount on a set of earphones, and that he unwittingly took a bag to Braswell's son's car that contained stolen merchandise.

Just when Northridge seemed to have steadied itself after that incident, Jenkins was in a Feb. 14 accident, suffering internal injuries that required surgery. He has declined interview requests, but has attended two games and made it to Northridge for the team's senior-recognition day.

Yet somehow, out of the rubble of personal errors and misfortune, something unexpected has come -- a championship.

The Matadors' 11-5 record in the Big West -- 15-13 overall -- earned them the regular-season title and a bye into the Friday semifinals of the Big West tournament that began Wednesday at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Even if Northridge loses in the Big West tournament, the regular-season title has earned the Matadors an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament.

"It's given me and my staff an opportunity to talk about life," said Braswell, who had his own close call in a car accident months before the season when he was broadsided in an intersection and struck a tree. "We all have responsibilities. I have to show up for my team, and I have to be there at home, for my child, for my family. . . . That's the attitude my faith leads me to.

"It's not the problems or adversity that define character. It's how you deal with it."

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Times staff writer James Wagner contributed to this report.

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robynnorwood@verizon.net

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