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Cal State Northridge players thrive through resilience

When outside problems took the Matadors' top two leading scorers off the court, the remaining teammates banded all the way to the NCAA tournament.

March 19, 2009|Robyn Norwood

The time has come to talk about the Cal State Northridge players who will play in the NCAA tournament, not the ones who won't.

Tie both arms behind your back and try to do a somersault through a Hula-Hoop, and we'll call that an approximation of what the Matadors did to reach their first-round game today against Memphis without their leading scorer or starting point guard.

Meet the Matadors who never folded.

"I've had more people call me and say they can't believe they lost two of their leading scorers in the middle of the season and still end up where they are," Memphis Coach John Calipari said Wednesday in Kansas City, Mo. "It doesn't matter what the score is. With seven or eight minutes to go, if you think this team is going to go away, you're out of your mind. They're going to play."

Maybe it's because they've bounced off the pavement before. Nine of the Matadors are transfers, with Rob Haynes the only player who has spent four seasons at Northridge. Rodrigue Mels, born in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, barely spoke English three years ago. Mark Hill transferred home to Los Angeles after the death of an aunt. Kenny Daniels played for a team at Vashon High in St. Louis that was ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today but stopped at three junior colleges before landing at Northridge. Willie Galick transferred from Pepperdine because of the demands of a coach. And Michael Lizarraga rarely gets into games, but his accomplishment is significant: Lizarraga was born deaf.

"Everybody has their own individual problems at any given time. That's just life," said senior forward Tremaine Townsend, whose 10.9-point average makes him the top remaining scorer after Deon Tresvant was arrested and charged with felony theft and Josh Jenkins suffered internal injuries in a car accident.

"It just brought us together, made us stronger and tougher, just more resilient to go through tough times," Townsend said.

The Matadors can't match the Tigers in talent or size, but they might give them a run in some other categories.

"There's definitely a toughness factor in these guys," said Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell, who is enduring his own ordeal with his 22-year-old son, Jeffrey, facing trial on felony theft charges along with Tresvant.

Every Matador seems to have a tale.

The player who carried Northridge in the Big West Conference tournament by scoring 51 points in two games, Mels, isn't even a starter. He still speaks with the French accent of his homeland and played three seasons of high school basketball in Paris at the school that produced NBA player Tony Parker.

Mels wanted to follow former teammate Ronny Turiaf to Gonzaga but didn't know enough English to qualify and went to Midland College in Texas, where he became the most valuable player of the 2007 national junior college tournament.

"I took English as a Second Language and got my SAT," said Mels, who landed at Northridge after an uncle urged him to join him in Southern California.

Hill, a point guard from Los Angeles Fremont High who played at Tulsa for two seasons, transferred to Northridge after the death of an aunt, whose image is tattooed on his arm. He became eligible at mid-season. Eight games later, Jenkins was injured in a Feb. 14 accident, and Hill took over.

Galick started his career at Pepperdine, but transferred before Vance Walberg resigned as coach last season. Though Walberg cited family reasons, Athletic Director John Watson said the coach also had made "mistakes in judgment" that included humiliating a player by making him leave the court and suck his thumb in practice.

That player was Galick.

"Everyone hears thumb-sucking, but I just bit down on the edge of my thumb," Galick said. "The way he mentally played with guys, it wasn't great. All this right now is so sweet, especially after what we've been through."

Lizarraga can sense the sweetness, but he cannot hear the cheers. On the bench, interpreter Erin Matthews often signs Braswell's words to him. On the court, Galick, who is taking an American Sign Language course to communicate with his friend, sometimes signs to him as well.

A walk-on from California School for the Deaf in Fremont, Lizarraga was drawn to Northridge because of its highly regarded programs for the deaf, and has appeared in 15 games in two seasons.

"I was scared that we tied but I had faith in my team," he wrote on a notepad the day after Northridge's overtime victory over Pacific to win the Big West tournament.

"Guess what -- we did it -- best feeling in my life."

Jeff Barker of the Baltimore Sun contributed to this report from Kansas City, Mo.; Norwood reported from Los Angeles.

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robynnorwood@verizon.net

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Cal State Northridge today

VS. MEMPHIS

Time: 9:15 a.m. PDT.

On the air: TV: Channel 2.

Where: Sprint Center; Kansas City, Mo.

Records: Northridge 17-13, Memphis 31-3.

Update: The 15th-seeded Matadors are making the school's second NCAA tournament appearance as a Division I team. They lost to Kansas, 99-75, in the first round in 2001. Memphis, seeded second in the NCAA West Regional and ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press poll, played for the NCAA title last season but lost to Kansas in overtime, 75-68. The Tigers have one of the nation's top freshmen in point guard Tyreke Evans, and their quickness is a problem for the Matadors. Northridge particularly needs to limit its turnovers after committing 26 in a victory over UC Santa Barbara in the Big West Conference tournament. Against Memphis, turnovers are an invitation to dunk.

-- Robyn Norwood

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