Cal State Fullerton didn’t exactly come out smelling like a rose Wednesday night, but guard Joe Small provided a pick-me-up bouquet in the second half to get the Titans on their way to a 91-78 Big West Conference victory over San Jose State.
A Titan Gym crowd of 1,909 watched Small score nine consecutive points during a two-minute stretch as Fullerton turned a 54-52 deficit into a 61-58 lead with 9:10 remaining. Small finished with 30, including a 5-for-12 performance from three-point range.
The Titans (10-3, 3-1 in conference) then rode the hot hands of J.D. Green, who scored all 10 of his points in the final nine minutes, and Aaron Wilhite, who scored eight of his 21 points in the last five minutes, to their 10th victory in their last 11 games.
Wilhite, who played all 40 minutes because reserve center Ron Caldwell was suffering from a rib-cage injury, added 14 rebounds to his career-high 21 points, and forward Agee Ward, who logged 36 minutes, added 19 points and 10 rebounds. Wayne Williams also had 10 points and 11 assists for Fullerton.
“You’ve got to be fatigued when you play hard for 40 minutes, but Aaron really sucked it up,” Titan Coach John Sneed said. “He had a lot left in the last few minutes. Agee also went more minutes than he usually goes, but he did a great job.”
The Spartans (2-11, 0-4) had trimmed a 10-point deficit to six on Ron Hannon’s three-pointer with 4:02 left. After Williams scored on a fast break, Wilhite followed a missed free throw with a basket, scored on a nice pass from Green and then added another follow shot with 1:43 left to give Fullerton a comfortable 83-71 lead.
Despite the 13-point margin of victory, the Titans came dangerously close to losing a game they would have had no business losing. San Jose State, which began play with a five-game losing streak, lost starting forward Jason Allen with a compound dislocation of his right ring finger in the first half, then lost starting guard Charles Terrell, who fouled out with 8:31 remaining.
The Spartans were already without injured starters Daryl Scott (center) and Troy Batiste (guard) and reserve guard Andre Brooks.
But San Jose State, which shot 39% from the field in 12 previous games, connected on 31 of 54 shots for a season-high 57% and hung with the Titans until the final minutes. Philip Crump led the Spartans with 12 points, and Terrell and Mike Wasserburger each added 11.
If not for the injuries, a few defensive lapses and some indecisive play on offense, San Jose State might have upset Fullerton.
“We don’t have much depth at the wing with three starters out, and our guys got tired,” Spartan Coach Stan Morrison said. “We weren’t getting back fast enough, we weren’t blocking out, we didn’t get any loose balls, and they tore us apart inside.”
Indeed, 22 of Fullerton’s 40 rebounds were offensive, including eight by Ward and seven by Wilhite. The Titans also tore the Spartans apart at the free-throw line, making 24 of 38 foul shots compared to San Jose State’s 10 of 12.
That’s nothing new to the Spartans--opponents had made 121 more free throws and went to the line 169 more times in their previous 12 games.
“That’s been happening all year long,” Morrison said.
Still, the night started out well for San Jose State. The Spartans made five of their first six shots and the Titans looked like Cal State Frigid in the first four minutes, missing nine of their first 10 shots as San Jose State took a 10-2 lead.
After Sneed called timeout with 16:11 left in the first half, Fullerton went to a full-court press and outscored San Jose State, 17-0, in the next 3:07 to take a 19-10 lead.
The Titan press helped forced turnovers on three successive Spartan possessions and Fullerton took advantage, pounding the ball inside to Ward and Wilhite, who combined for 11 points during the run. Williams added a three-point basket, and Small capped the spree with a three-pointer with 13:06 left.
“There are times we want to get the defense going and that gets the crowd into the game,” Sneed said. “We have such little depth, we can’t press for prolonged periods of time. But when we used it, it was effective.”
Fullerton increased the lead to 29-16 on Small’s jumper with 9:55 to go, but San Jose State came back with a 9-2 run of its own, thanks in part to some poor Titan shot selection.
Instead of attacking the back of the Spartans’ 1-3-1 zone, Fullerton stood on the perimeter and launched outside shots, most of which missed. The Spartans pulled to within one at 34-33, when Philip Crump made a three-pointer, was fouled by Kevin Ahsmuhs and converted the four-point play with 2:16 to go.
Small then made two consecutive three-pointers and a free throw as Fullerton took a 41-37 halftime lead.
“They surprised us with that zone--we weren’t prepared for it,” Sneed said. “You have to give credit to San Jose State. They never quit. They’re a scrappy bunch of kids.”