By Bob Vazquez, Assistant Athletic Director (Media Relations)
Northridge, Calif. – There was a whole lot of Yale yelling, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, dancing in the aisles, cheering to the top of your lungs, and just plain hyper enthusiasm when Cal State Northridge hosted the defending Big West champion Long Beach State 49ers on Saturday night at the Matadome.
At game time, Matador students crammed into their bleacher seats to cheer on Cal State Northridge. On the other side, the community and numerous Hall of Fame alums did likewise. They filled their seats and cheered on the Matadors with reckless abandon. Alums, who played sports when the school was known as San Fernando Valley State, proudly wore their Matador sweaters and letterman jackets.
On this Saturday night, there was no generation gap. Matador fans, young and old, beamed with pride about what they witnessed.
A crowd of 1,650 packed into the Matadome like sardines, and any late arrivals were not allowed in because the 50-year-old gym was already filled. Not a seat anywhere.
On this Saturday night, the noise level rivaled a rock concert or matched any big-time basketball venue.
"This was a great atmosphere for college basketball," Matador head coach Bobby Braswell said. "Having the community and Hall of Fame alums back, and having them cheering was very important to the team. The team thrived on the student support that we saw tonight. It was very impressive."
The task on the floor was no easy endeavor. Long Beach State has, for many years, been the beacon of success for Big West Conference basketball.
The 49ers are big, physical, intimidating and a grizzled group of veteran players who know how to win. Cal State Northridge refused to be bullied.
In the end however, Long Beach State pulled out an 83-80 victory over Cal State Northridge in a Big West Conference game. But the 49ers won't soon forget the herculean effort they had to display in order to earn the victory over the Matadors.
"I'm very, very proud of the team's effort," said Braswell. "We have been through a long season of ups-and-downs. We have really played well the last five games. Long Beach State is the #1 team in our conference. They have a lot of veteran guys. I thought our guys really played hard and competed. But we had a letup in the second half. It's a game we really wanted to win before a sold out crowd. We wanted to win in front of our home fans, and so there is a lot of disappointment there. But I'm proud of their effort."
The initial Long Beach State game plan was to pound the ball inside with their physical front line and punish the Matador inside defenders. It worked in the first nine minutes of the game as the 49ers chiseled out a 17-10 lead.
Cal State Northridge said "enough is enough." The Matadors pushed back and a 16-3 run gave CSUN a 26-20 lead with 7:05 left in the first half.
"They (LBS) tried to make their point in the first four minutes of the game with their size," said forward Trevone Williams, who came off the bench to bully his way for 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes. "They are a bigger team than us. They felt they could dominant us. But we responded to it. We made them shoot a lot of perimeter shots."
Long Beach State reverted to its outside game and tried 17 three-pointers in the first half. The 49ers were only able to convert on five shots from behind the arc. In the meantime, the Cal State Northridge lead kept growing. The 26-20 CSUN lead ended with an eleven-point halftime margin, 39-28.
CSUN's defense held Long Beach State to only .357 (10-for-28) shooting and .294 (5-for-17) from three-point territory in the first 20 minutes.
"They were intent on shoving us around on their defensive end to start the game, and pound the ball inside," said Braswell. "That caught us off-guard but our guys responded to it really well. They (LBS) are a little bigger and stronger, a little older and more physical than we are. I told our guys we needed to use our quickness and to move our feet. We were able to get around the post and guard the ball a little bit better. That changed things. We were able to get some fast break baskets that wore them down a little bit."
The 49ers refused to fold in the second half. Long Beach State outscored Cal State Northridge, 14-2, to start the second half to take a 42-41 lead at the 17:09 mark. From that point on, each possession by both teams became critical.
"Long Beach State came out a lot more aggressive offensively (to start the second half)," said Braswell. "We warned our guys this was going to happen. We had a lot of guys standing up and not defending. They hit some big shots to start the second half. Defensively, they went to a zone (defense) early in the second half and that slowed us down a little bit. We didn't shoot the ball very well. Those two things set the tone in the second half."
During the 40-minute slugfest, the lead changed 16 times. The score was tied nine times.
With 5:20 remaining in the game, a Donovan Johnson layup gave the Matadors a 66-65 lead. That would be the last time CSUN would lead in the game. Michael Caffey played the final five minutes like an All-American. Caffey hit a layup with 4:52 to play to give Long Beach State a 67-66 lead. With 2:56 left, Caffey hit a tough, a defender-in-your-face three-pointer to make it 72-68 in favor of Long Beach State.
Trevone Williams hit an off-balanced three-pointer as the shot clock ran out to tie the game with 14:45 left. But Caffey swished a two-pointer to put the 49ers back in front, 75-73, 13 seconds later.
Then Caffey continued his hot shooting touch. A Caffey three-pointer with 40 seconds remaining gave Long Beach State a 78-75 lead followed by two Caffey free throws to make it 80-75.
In the final 4:52 of the game, Caffey scored 12 of the 49ers final 17 points. Caffey ended the evening with a game-high 22 points.
"In the last four minutes, I thought we defended some shots really well," said Braswell. "But Caffey hit some huge shots. That's what he does. He has been in this situation before. He has done this before in his career. That's a player making plays. He made two really contested three-point shots. He made shots, and we didn't at the end. That's why Long Beach State won."
A three-pointer by Josh Greene made the score, 82-80, with 14 seconds left. But Keala King hit a free throw to make it 83-80.
"I don't think we got a stop in the first four minutes or the last four minutes of the second half," said Braswell. "Those were two critical periods of time. Give them (LBS) credit. We are still without our leading scorer (Stephan Hicks), but I'm proud of how hard we still battled. We really had a chance to win this basketball game. We had some plays near the end of the game that are very tough for our freshmen to handle right now. But it's a great growing experience because they will be in those same situations later in their careers. Sometimes you are going to lose some tough games like this. You are not going to make the plays you want to make. But you can always learn and grow. We could have defended a little better in the second half. But give Long Beach State credit."
A Matador turnover in the final seconds ended CSUN's dreams at tying the game with a three-pointer.
Final Score – Long Beach State 83, Cal State Northridge 80.
Five Matador players scored in double figures. Stephen Maxwell led CSUN with 20 points along with eight rebounds Josh. Greene and Trevone Williams each added 12 points. Williams added seven rebounds while Greene chipped in with four boards. Donovan Johnson scored eleven points while Landon Drew had ten points.
"We're going back to work on Monday to watch the film and to see how we can improve," said Drew. "Long Beach State is big, physical team but we didn't back down. I'm proud of how we played tonight. "This was a real, tough loss. But it's a learning experience. As a unit, we are not going to back down. I'm not doubting us. I know the coaches will continue to work with us and vice versa."
Before exiting the media room, Braswell, Drew and Williams wanted to say "Thanks" for the crowd's energy and support.
"Hopefully, the fans saw something they liked and will come back not only for the rest of the year but in the years ahead," said Braswell. "This team will continue to get better and improve. This is something they will experience again throughout their careers if they continue to work hard."
Williams said, "The crowd was great. It gives you a little more motivation. When it gets that loud in the arena, that's what I like."
Drew agreed. "It was great for everyone to come out and support us. The atmosphere picked up everybody's energy. We knew before the game that it was going to be a sellout. It was a great experience."