" What happened tonight?" a young man in street clothes said.
"We just didn't take them serious, man," the player said forlornly. "And by the time we did, it was too late. We just didn't think they could play real Division I basketball."
It was an opinion shared by many.
But the Matadors, after a horrendous 0-10 start, proved otherwise. And their 102-95 victory over Loyola Marymount on Feb. 18 was but a single example.
Northridge (11-17) did not finish the season as it might have liked, losing to Southern Utah and getting blown out by Brigham Young. But the Matadors' play during a 13-game stretch prior to that was very impressive.
From Jan. 7-Feb. 22, Northridge won 10 of 13 games, defeating some decent teams along the way: Montana State, Wisconsin Milwaukee and, of course, Loyola Marymount.
Montana State finished 14-14 and in the middle of the Big Sky Conference standings; Wisconsin Milwaukee is 20-8 and postseason bound--if not to the NCAA tournament then certainly the NIT; and Loyola Marymount finished 15-13, advancing to the semifinals of the West Coast Conference postseason tournament.
The win over Loyola Marymount was particularly significant. It marked the 300th victory for Pete Cassidy, who has spent all of his 21 seasons as a college coach at Northridge, and it came before a boisterous crowd of 2,276, the largest in recent memory for a basketball game at Matador Gym.
Among those in attendance were television cameramen and, most importantly, several Northridge recruits. Although these Lions were not up to usual Loyola Marymount standards, the win was, by all accounts, a big one for a Northridge program in only its second season of Division I competition.
Exactly how big still is to be determined. It depends on whether the coaching staff can extend the team's on-court success to recruiting efforts.
If Northridge coaches are as tenacious as their players, they could make quite a haul.
They will have to, for the cupboard is almost bare.
Andre Chevalier and James Morris, Northridge's top returning players, could not play the post in a 6-foot-and-under league.
Chevalier, a point guard whose 10.3-scoring average was second on the team, is listed at 6-foot. But he is only slightly taller than Morris who, though muscular, is only 5-8.
Both are smart, hard-nosed players. However, as a backcourt tandem, they are just too small.
Similar size problems exist at forward and center. Percy Fisher, John Moses and Peter Micelli are the only Northridge players 6-6 or taller.
Fisher (6-7) was third on the team with a scoring average of 9.3, but his first two seasons have been plagued by inconsistency on the court and controversy off it.
As a freshman, Fisher was deemed academically ineligible. This past season, he was temporarily suspended by Cassidy for disciplinary reasons.
Moses (6-6, 220 pounds) and Micelli (6-8, 215) are role players who should not be counted on for big scoring or rebounding contributions.
Some help already is on the way. Geoff Gorham, a 6-7 forward who scored at a 20.6 clip to lead a good Riverside City College team, signed with the Matadors in November.
Northridge will be the fourth college Gorham has attended since he graduated from Ramona High in Riverside, and he is not the type of player to build a team around.
Much more help is needed. Cassidy proved during the Matadors' late-season run that he does not need a lot of talent to mold a squad that occasionally can defeat mid-level Division I opponents.
Still, Northridge's fortunes seemed to ebb and flow with the play of senior swingman Keith Gibbs, who led the team with a 15.2 average and scored in double figures in his last 16 games.
Simply stated, the Matadors need more players like Gibbs, who played capable defense, could score from the inside or outside, was a good passer and an entertaining performer. All things considered, he probably is the best all-around player to have worn a Northridge uniform in many years.
In recruiting replacements, perhaps Northridge should target the same place from which Gibbs came--West Valley College in Saratoga, Calif.
Opposing coaches report that West Valley, the state's top-ranked junior college team, has at least seven major-college prospects on its roster.
Right now, it appears Northridge could use every one of them.
Otherwise, any momentum gained is again lost, and the building process must begin anew.