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Titans Can’t Find Basket, New Mexico State Rolls On : Basketball: Fullerton shoots 38.8% while losing, 78-70. Sunderland goes 0 for 15. Aggies clinch top seeding in Big West tournament.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They’ve wheezed. They’ve gasped. They’ve sputtered and coughed.

And on Thursday, Cal State Fullerton clanked.

The Titans, shooting only 38.8% from the field, lost their third game in a row, 78-70, as New Mexico State clinched the top seeding in the Big West Conference tournament in front of 2,279 in Titan Gym.

It didn’t matter what the angle was or from where their shots originated. The Titans, led by point guard Aaron Sunderland, were off-target from almost every imaginable location.

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Sunderland was 0 for 15 from the field. Fellow guard Don Leary (16 points) was six for 14. Forward Bruce Bowen (14 points) was five of 15.

“First of all, our shots weren’t falling all night,” forward Kim Kemp said afterward.

Oh yeah?

Titan shots were falling, all right--they fell hard against the front of the rim, the back of the rim, the backboard and, in a few cases, they fell through the air and back onto the court, nowhere near the basket.

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If center Sean Williams (18 points) hadn’t checked in at nine of 11 from the field, there’s no telling how much more frigid things could have gotten.

As it was, Sunderland, who finished with four points and seven assists, supplied enough ice for the entire team. Through the past 13 seasons, three Fullerton players went zero for nine, but none missed 15 while drawing a blank under “field goals made.”

“I couldn’t buy a bucket tonight,” Sunderland said. “I don’t know. It just wasn’t there tonight. It was one of those nights.

“This is my worst night. I’ve never had a night like this at any level.”

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Since being named as the Big West Conference player of the week two weeks ago, Sunderland has shot just 16.6% (six of 36) in Fullerton’s past three games.

On Thursday, he missed layups, short jumpers, long jumpers and, and, hitting for the cycle, even missed a dunk attempt with 2 minutes 31 seconds left and the Titans trailing, 70-61.

“Gol-lee,” Sunderland said, dragging out the L’s as if Fullerton hasn’t had enough lately. “Once I knew I couldn’t dunk, it was like, ‘Aww’...

“In practice, I would have put it down easy.”

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Said Coach Brad Holland: “Oh-for-15 is about as bad as it gets.”

The Titans (14-11, 9-8) made just one field goal in the game’s first 8:01 and only two in the first 9:18. But their 13 first-half offensive rebounds helped compensate for the lack of marksmanship, and they trailed at halftime by only 36-30.

Then, behind a Leary three-pointer, a Kemp dunk and four points from reserve Dijon Bernard, Fullerton came back to take a 55-54 lead with 8:15 remaining in the game.

Trouble was, New Mexico State (22-6, 14-3), spurred by three-pointers from Sam Crawford and Corey Rogers, quickly went on an 8-0 run.

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Fullerton never recovered.

“They made some pretty good plays, and they capitalized on our mistakes,” Kemp said. “That’s what basketball is all about.”

The Aggies, who were coming off of a victory over Nevada Las Vegas on Monday, are one victory away from winning their first outright Big West Conference title. New Mexico State wraps up its season at UC Irvine on Saturday.

“I thought we played well tonight,” said Aggie Coach Neil McCarthy. “Every time they closed, we were able to make a run.

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“What did we win by, eight? That’s a big win on the road.”

Crawford, who jawed with the Fullerton cheering section several times in the first half, finished with 18 points and nine assists. Forward Cliff Reed added 18 points for the Aggies, who have now won 12 of 14.

Fullerton, meanwhile, continues its descent through the Big West standings. Poised to take sole possession of third place just one week ago, the Titans, who have now lost six of nine, dropped into a tie for fifth with UC Santa Barbara.

At this point, nothing seems to be working--including a shorter, five-day work week. Holland gave the players Sunday and Monday off this week in an attempt to snap the slump.

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But . . .

“It’s tough to win when you shoot 38%,” he noted.

Fullerton, which will play either Pacific or Cal State Long Beach in next weekend’s conference tournament, will finish the regular season at home Saturday against UNLV.

“We’ve had a successful season,” Holland said. “The guys have had good attitudes, stayed positive and done what we’ve asked.

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“There’s no question we’d like to do better, but given the time we’ve had together, it’s been a successful year. We need to understand that.”

Said Sunderland: “We’re in a slump right now, and Vegas would be the right time to come out of it, going into the tournament.

“If my shots fall, and a couple of others fall, it’s done.”

The laws of physics say that the Fullerton shots will fall.

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Where they fall? That’s another question.


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