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The Colleges : Fullerton Rebounds for a Surprising Season : Titans Begin in Disarray, Finish With Enough Bang to Nearly Land in NIT

Times Staff Writer

Cal State Fullerton’s basketball team met briefly Monday afternoon, and then the players wandered out to fill their first empty weekday afternoon in a long while.

Derek Jones, the Titans’ captain and only senior starter, was off to play Ping-Pong or shoot pool with some teammates, but that was not what he wanted to be doing.

“I kind of expected at this time to still be practicing for the postseason--the NCAA or the NIT,” Jones said.

Fullerton’s season ended Friday in a 99-83 loss to Nevada Las Vegas in the semifinals of the Big West Conference tournament.

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“I’ve been kind of depressed about the loss all weekend,” Jones said. “It was a devastating one. I haven’t gotten over that.”

In the eyes of most, that was the end of a thrilling season.

This was a team picked to finish ninth in the Big West--and that was before George McQuarn resigned and three players quit the team.

Before the first game, some people said the Titans might not win more than five games.

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The optimists said 10.

Even John Sneed, then the acting coach, said that if he could, he would take a .500 record and agree not to play a single game.

But Fullerton got off to a 5-1 start, although three of those victories--against Sonoma State, San Diego and Portland--were over teams that would go on to struggle all season.

Sneed said he was happy about the victories, but cautioned others about being overly excited.

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“I’m pleased,” Sneed said. “But I’m not confused.”

On the heels of the start, Fullerton lost seven in a row. The team didn’t rebound until the fifth game of the conference schedule, when it got its first Big West victory against San Jose State, a team playing its first game with the makeshift lineup that replaced 10 players who walked out.

But that victory was the start of a string in which the Titans won 10 of their final 14 regular-season games.

They finished in a tie for fourth in the conference, and came up one victory short of a probable bid to the National Invitation Tournament.

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Their final record was 16-13 with five overtime victories, including one over UNLV, only Fullerton’s third ever.

Most everyone else may be remembering the glory, but for Jones on Monday, disappointment was the emotion at the front of his thoughts.

“I thought before the season we had a chance to win 20 games,” Jones said. “I could see we were going to be a good team. We didn’t really know each other, but I could see the talent.”

At the start of the season, the unmeasured talents of this team belonged to Cedric Ceballos, Mark Hill and Wayne Williams--not to mention Sneed, who was named coach Saturday.

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Ceballos, with his spectacularly athletic moves, led the Titans in scoring and rebounding, finishing at 21 points and nine rebounds a game.

Hill, unheralded as a community college player, emerged as the team’s most consistent player, averaging 17 points a game and scoring in double figures in all but two games--and had nine in both of those. He had the team’s single highest-scoring game, hitting 33 in a loss to Utah State. A true jump shooter--his hang time created many a three-point play--he set school records for three-point baskets in a game (seven) and in a season (75).

Williams, the freshman, averaged only three turnovers a game--remarkable for a young point guard, and was nicknamed “buzzer-beater” by Hill for the three victory inspiring long-range shots he hit as the half or the game ran out.

Occasionally forgotten amid the excitement was the remarkable comeback of Jones, who recovered from critical injuries sustained in a 1987 drive-by shooting in Long Beach.

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He returned to become the emotional leader of the team, its spokesman and one of the clutch players.

It was his desperate three-pointer--the first of his career--that sent Fullerton into overtime with UNLV in the game that Williams won with a 30-foot three-pointer.

Two other seniors finished their careers Friday--Brent Calvin and Randal Moos. Jones, the heart and soul of the team, will be the hardest to replace.

Reasonably so, he was one of the most disheartened to see the season end.

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“I’m not going to say I was pleased with my season, not even that I was satisfied,” Jones said. “I’ll just say it will do. . . . People said to me that I had a great season. But I thought I should have scored more and rebounded the ball a little better. I guess it will just have to do.”

After this semester, Jones will be about 10 units shy of graduating, and Sneed already has promised that if Jones does well this semester, he can return on a basketball scholarship next fall to finish his degree.

After that, Jones said he may play basketball overseas, or perhaps put his criminal justice major to use as a corrections coordinator. He also likes to diagram plays in his head and think about basketball, but coaching, he said, might have too much “stress and heartache” for him.

For right now, he can’t quite shake the thought of that seven-game losing streak, the close losses to Pepperdine and New Orleans, and the fact that but for any one of them he might be practicing in Titan Gym instead of whiling away a sunny day.

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“This season was special to me because of what I had been through,” Jones said. “I just wanted to come back and play because I love the game so much. . . . I still wish it was going on. It was exciting. It was fun while it lasted.”


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