George McQuarn's worst nightmares and sweetest dreams all became reality Saturday.
With less than four minutes gone in Cal State Fullerton's game against San Jose State, the Titan coach watched guard Richard Morton, who has been carrying the Titan offense since Kevin Henderson was injured last month, crash into the basket support after fouling the Spartans' Ontario Johnson on a breakaway layup.
Morton strained a knee ligament, a calf muscle and sprained his left ankle. Trainer Jerry Lloyd said Morton is "very questionable" for Monday's game against University of the Pacific.
But thirty-six minutes later, McQuarn raised his fist in jubilation when the Titans managed a 41-40 Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. victory over the Spartans, who were also playing without two key players.
At this point in the season, these two teams don't need programs, they need medical journals.
Fullerton (2-2 in PCAA play and 9-7 overall) played most of the game without two players who are, together, averaging 35 points a game, and the Titans went for extended periods with a lineup that had a combined average of less than 20 points.
San Jose State (2-3, 9-5) is missing guard Ward Farris (bruised thigh), who is averaging 9 points, and forward Reggie Owens (hip pointer), who is averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds.
As a result, the game was like a drag race between two Edsels.
Fullerton trailed, 26-19, at halftime, and McQuarn figured the only chance the Titans had of winning was to take at least 20 seconds off the clock before going into the offense. That ploy, and a typically tenacious defense, was the difference.
The Titans held the Spartans to four second-half field goals, two of which came in the last three minutes.
"It's nice to have one not go into overtime," said McQuarn, referring to the Titans' three previous conference games, which went beyond regulation. "It's also nice to win on the road, especially here. It's always a war here."
Actually, the game did look more like rugby than basketball much of the time. There were so many pileups, the officials must have been tempted to signal "first down" instead of "jump ball."
Because of the injuries, the offensive burden would seemingly have fallen on Fullerton's Kerry Boagni and San Jose's Ricky Berry. But Boagni was 3 of 12 from the floor and scored only 6 points. Berry hit only 4 of 13 field-goal attempts but still led all scorers with 14.
The hero for Fullerton was Alexander Hamilton. McQuarn says Hamilton's best asset is his "athletic ability," which translates to: "He can really run and jump but has a way to go as a basketball player."
Hamilton, the Titans' No. 3 point guard, hit a three-pointer (his third such attempt and only the Titans' second three-pointer in 24 attempts this season) to tie the score at 40-40 with 1:13 on the game clock and five seconds remaining on the 45-second clock.
San Jose had trouble getting the ball to Berry on the ensuing possession. Titan Eugene Jackson stole the ball from George Puou, was fouled by Johnson and made one of two free throws to give Fullerton the winning margin.
"I'm not gonna do too much thinking about this one," said Bill Berry, San Jose coach and father of Ricky. "Every possession, every turnover had an impact on the game. . . . It was an interesting game from that standpoint.
"If both teams were at full strength, this would have been a different game. Nobody wants a 41-40 game--that stinks. But when you've got a finely tuned engine and one cylinder isn't working, it runs rough. With two gone, it doesn't run at all."
There wasn't a lot of fast-break basketball going on in this one, that's for sure. McQuarn thought sophomore Henry Turner's defense of Berry was a key. Turner, who also scored 12 points (the only Titan in double figures) and had a game-high 9 rebounds, did do a good job of denying Berry the ball, but Bill Berry thought maybe McQuarn deserved credit for the win.
"They got conservative because they felt they had to to stay in the game," Berry said. "We seemed to feel obliged to be conservative, too. Maybe I should have made a coaching adjustment. Who knows?"
It was a hard one to figure.
"Wheeew," said Henderson, shaking his head. "Who would've predicted it would come out like this?"
It wasn't a classic. Both teams shot 36% from the field, and they combined for 32 turnovers. But, as injury-dominated games go, it was, like Berry said, "interesting."