By Manny Nunez
With just two days left before Selection Sunday, the schools that everyone has grown familiar with in Southern California will miss out on the NCAA Tournament. However, four teams met up Friday night at the Honda Center in Anaheim to help decide not only who will represent the Big West, but very well the only California team standing and playing next week.
UC Irvine and Long Beach State were first up in the Big West Tournament semifinal.
With Long Beach State looking for their first conference tournament title since 2012, the UC Irvine Anteaters are no strangers to making the finals, appearing in three of the last six.
With the Anteaters down by as many as seven in the second half, they used an 11-0 run to spark up a plethora of fast break points with Robert Cartwright leading the charge. Their ability to get out in transition gave UC Irvine an eight-point lead late in the second half. After trading baskets back and forth, Jonathan Galloway’s offensive board and slam put a bow in yet another conference championship visit with a 75-67 victory.
“Overall we have balance in our team.” UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner said. “Everyone wants to talk about our guards but we have a complete team. When teams decide to play a certain way against us we can adjust and move around as we please.”
“The most important thing about tonight is the win and nothing else,” Cartwright said. “My job is to do whatever I can to win the game. Coach Peters had a good talk with me over the break and I needed to adjust. I saw that I had an opportunity to attack the basket and use my teammates to get easy shots.”
Cal State Fullerton looked to repeat as champions and be the first to do so since 2011. The Titans shaded the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos faced off in the second game to see who would have a date with the Anteaters in the second semifinal.
The first half was a tug and war battle with Santa Barbara holding on to slim leads for the first 20 minutes. A quick lay in by CSUF’s Khalil Ahmad at the buzzer made it a 28-25 Gaucho lead at the break.
UCSB found the love from deep on back to back three’s from Jarriesse Blackmon and JaQuori McLaughlin giving the Gauchos a comfortable eight point lead out of the first media timeout. The Titans found themselves back in it while the Gauchos went cold from the field failing to pick up a field goal up in the final seven minutes. Fullerton used it to their advantage to turn an eight point Gaucho lead to instead tie up the ball game with over two minutes to go. A Kyle Allman rejection then led to an Ahmad lay in gave the Titans their first lead since early in the first half. The lead was then secured with another pair of rejections inside the paint, leading to an improbably 64-58 victory that sets up a championship rematch with the UC Irvine.
“These group of guys believe what they are worth down the stretch,” Titans head coach Dedrique Taylor said. “They didn’t want to go home, and you saw all of their effort play out in the second half.”
With the tale of the tape, UC Irvine handled the Titans in both of their matchups. However, last season at the same venue Allman and Ahmad rolled over UC Irvine and held a double digit lead for most of the game and held the Anteaters to just 31 percent shooting. UC Irvine has a much different team this year, and revenge could be on the horizon.
“We were talking about last night how tonight could have been the last night,” Ahmad said. “We knew what we had to do to keep playing, and we had to be ready.”
Ken Cross, the self-proclaimed “CEO of College Hoops,” has a plethora of experience over a 20-plus year period in both print and broadcast journalism as a free-lancer on the east coast and in the Charlotte, NC area, in particular. He started with the now defunct Sports Fan Radio Network in 1997 as a reporter, giving in-game updates and then facilitating postgame interviews with players on winning teams after games via cell phones. He has also worked in the same capacity for ESPN Radio, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio, Sporting News Radio, Yahoo! Sports Radio over the same period.
In print and on the Internet, Cross continues to write for Lindy’s Sports Annuals as one of the primary writers for the College Basketball preview as well as a writer on the Lindy’s College Football preview staff. He also contributes frequently to the Lindy’s Sports website with articles on all sports throughout the year in a feature, editorial, and game summary mode. He also writes preview material for Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook and covers Wake Forest basketball for Rivals.com.
Cross has a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications from Appalachian State University and a Master’s in English and Education from Radford University in Virginia.