Fullerton Loses in Overtime : Titans Fall to Cal, 72-68, in NIT Opener Despite Morton's 35

Times Staff Writer

Richard Morton's glorious homecoming ended in misery Friday night. So did Cal State Fullerton's season of ups and downs, which was thought to have ended a week ago.

Senior guard Kevin Johnson scored 30 points and forward Dave Butler hit two free throws with 17 seconds left in overtime to give California a 72-68 victory in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament in front of a capacity crowd of 6,450 in Harmon Arena.

Morton, the Bay Area Player of the Year as a senior at Balboa High School in San Francisco, scored a career-high 35 points, including 4 of 4 three-point shots in front of a group of family and friends. But it wasn't enough to extend the Titans' season, which the players thought had ended after a loss to Nevada Las Vegas in the second round of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. tournament last week.

Morton hit a three-pointer from the corner with eight seconds left in regulation to tie it at 60-60. Then Johnson made his only mistake of the game. Thinking Cal still had the lead, Johnson held the ball in the backcourt, allowing time to expire.

"I thought we won it," Johnson said. "I just tried to run the clock out. I did an excellent job, huh?"

But it didn't take the Bears' talented playmaker long in overtime to atone for his error. He made two free throws six seconds into the extra period, hit an 18-footer at the 4:04 mark and made the passes that led to two more Cal scores. The Bears outscored Fullerton, 12-8, in overtime, to record their first postseason victory since a 77-69 victory over Cincinnati in the 1960 NCAA semifinals.

Cal (19-14) will travel to Oregon State for a second-round game Tuesday night. Fullerton closes the season--once and for all--at 17-13.

Forward Jon Wheeler had 14 points and 12 rebounds for the Bears. Butler finished with 16 points and 8 rebounds. Henry Turner and Herman Webster had 10 points each for Fullerton, but the Titans seemed mostly content to sit back and let Morton perform.

Morton was 9 of 18 from the field and 13 of 14 from the free throw line and appeared to be Fullerton's only offensive threat in the final minutes. His teammates seemed reluctant to shoot down the stretch, perhaps figuring they could do no better than get the ball in Morton's hands. But that made it easy for the Bears to know whom to defend.

"Psychologically, I think some of the other kids took themselves out of the offense," Fullerton Coach George McQuarn said. "But Richard was playing with so much confidence."

Cal led only twice in the first half, once at 2-0. Much of that was because of Morton, whom the Bears couldn't seem to defend. Morton had 19 points by halftime, including every Fullerton point in the last six minutes of the half.

A Turner steal led to one of Morton's three three-point shots of the first half, giving the Titans a 23-16 lead and forcing Cal Coach Lou Campanelli to call a timeout with 6:07 left to stop the Fullerton momentum. The Bears regrouped to tie it at 25-25 with 3:05 left when Johnson made a 15-foot jumper, and McQuarn called timeout.

Over the last three minutes, Morton made 6 straight free throws and another three-pointer and the Titans led 32-28 at halftime.

Fullerton is left with something of a paradox. It thought its last memory of the 1986-87 season was a 99-65 loss to Nevada Las Vegas. Now, the Titans are left to remember an overtime loss in a game, as Morton said, they "should have and could have won."

Which is worse?

"No, the kids have got to be proud," McQuarn said. "Obviously, they're disappointed with the loss, but they can be proud that they played well."

McQuarn said his biggest concern coming into the game was how his team would respond to the hostile surroundings of Harmon Arena. The Titans had played in front of partisan crowds at Brigham Young, UCLA and UNLV, and had played relatively well in each case. But Harmon Arena, built in 1933, looks like a set from the movie "Hoosiers." The fans, most of them students, are supportive, and many are seated close to the court. The Bears are 13-2 at home this season.

"This is a tough place to play," McQuarn said. "We've never played in an environment like this.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World