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Fullerton Fritters Away Another Lead, Loses to Eastern Illinois

TIMES STAFF WRITER

These five-point, second-half leads don’t seem to sit too well with the Cal State Fullerton basketball team. The Titans let another one slip away Thursday night in a 58-57 loss to Eastern Illinois.

It wasn’t a complete collapse for Fullerton, which saw Butler turn a five-point deficit with seven minutes left into a 100-83 victory Tuesday night. But it was frustrating just the same.

“We wanted a split on the road and were in position to win both games,” Titan Coach John Sneed said. “We were so close to being 2-0 on this trip.”

Fullerton (1-2) was a lot closer to winning Thursday night than it was Tuesday. But Joe Small’s jump shot from the free-throw line with five seconds remaining was tipped by Panther forward Barry Johnson and fell short of the basket. Eastern Illinois (4-0) grabbed the ball and ran out the clock.

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The Panthers scored the deciding points on guard Steve Rowe’s two free throws with 26 seconds remaining, shots that were awarded after a controversial call.

With Fullerton leading, 57-56, Titan point guard Aaron Sunderland missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw situation. Eastern Illinois forward Curtis Leib went high for the rebound, and his momentum carried him to the floor, where he fell on top of Fullerton’s J.D. Green in the key.

But instead of a traveling call on Leib, a referee cited Green for fouling Rowe, who was standing next to the pile.

“It was a ghost call,” admitted Rowe, who was two for 13 from the field but eight for nine from the foul line. “I appreciate the call.”

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Sneed declined to comment on the officiating, but even Eastern Illinois Coach Rick Samuels admitted his team might have caught a break.

“I’ve been coaching for 18 years, and I’ve seen those go both ways,” Samuels said. “Those breaks happen and we were fortunate to get that one tonight. It was a judgment call, and the ref felt our guy was at a disadvantage because of the contact.”

Fullerton seemed to have the advantage with 5 minutes 50 seconds remaining after Agee Ward’s turnaround jumper gave the Titans a 53-48 lead. But Panther reserve forward David Olson, who had missed all seven of his field-goal attempts, suddenly found his touch and single-handedly turned the game around.

Olson made two consecutive three-pointers, one of them an off-balance shot from the right corner, to give Eastern Illinois a 54-53 lead with 3:07 left and ignite the crowd of 3,198 in Lantz Gym.

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“Those shots really gave them some momentum,” Small said. “They weren’t playing well and all of a sudden he knocks down a three and then another. That gave them the push they needed.”

Unlike Tuesday’s game at Butler, the Titans pushed back Thursday. Fullerton forward Bruce Bowen made two foul shots and Small’s jumper with 1:44 left gave the Titans a 57-54 lead.

But Eastern Illinois answered with Leib’s inside basket to make it 57-56 with 1:24 to go. After a Fullerton turnover and Panther missed basket, Sunderland missed his free throw, and that led to the exchange that resulted in Rowe’s game-winning foul shots.

The Titans tried to work the final shot to Ward inside or Small outside, but the Panthers fronted Ward in the lane. Small drove from the right wing toward the free-throw line and was triple-teamed when he put up the last shot. It didn’t seem to be a high-percentage shot, but it was the best available against a swarming Panther defense.

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“I told the team in the locker room you can look back at 20 different plays or possessions or shots that could have won it,” Sneed said. “You can’t put that much emphasis on the last play.”

Sneed preferred to emphasize the positives, and there were plenty for Fullerton. Sunderland, who had 12 turnovers in two previous games, appeared more polished Thursday and had seven assists and only four turnovers.

Kevin Ahsmuhs, starting at forward for the first time, played solid defense, had two assists and a key blocked shot that helped keep Eastern Illinois scoreless for almost four minutes in the second half. That’s when the Titans scored eight consecutive points to turn a 43-38 deficit into a 46-43 lead with 8:30 to go.

Small, despite being closely guarded by Rowe, made nine of 16 shots and scored 20 points, and Ward made nine of 13 shots for 19 points. Green had 10 rebounds and Bowen had eight.

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The Panthers’ starting five entered with a 54.6 shooting percentage, but Fullerton’s matchup zone defense was partly responsible for a 37.9% shooting performance by Eastern Illinois.

“We played well, and there were certain times early in the game when we had easy shots that wouldn’t fall,” Sneed said. “But as long as they’re good shots, I can’t get upset. A 2-1 record would have sounded a lot better now, but we did a lot of positive things, and I can’t let the team forget about those.”


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