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A Banner Effort for the Titans

So what does one bring when invited to Pauley Pavilion for Unveil Another Championship Banner Night?

Cal State Fullerton could have, and should have, brought along its brand new College World Series championship banner, just in case the name on the guest list wasn’t impressive enough.

Or, maybe, a nice bottle of wine.

Instead, Fullerton showed up with its men’s basketball team. A box of cigars, ready to be smoked.

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For 33 minutes, however, UCLA wasn’t sure if it had slipped the exploding variety on a prank.

And they said great moments in Titan basketball would be few and far between this season.

How about this on opening night?

Halftime score: Picked-to-finish-last-in-the-Big-West Fullerton 30, Defending National Champion UCLA 29.

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And with 16 minutes to play: UCLA 38, Fullerton 36.

And with seven minutes to play: UCLA 59, Fullerton 53.

If the young Titans, who began Tuesday night’s game with only four players who had previously appeared in a Division I game, were cowed by the pregame spotlights and speeches, it took most of the evening before it sank in. Fullerton eventually lost, 79-63, meaning Jim Harrick won’t be run out of town before the Wooden Classic, but the Titans acquitted themselves as something more than the wrong end of the mismatch of the 1995-96 season.

A week ago, this was the No. 4 team in the country against the worst team in the Big West, the basketball conference that ranks a distant fourth on the compass--several notches below the Big East, the Big South and the up-and-coming Big North.

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In real numbers, how does that break down?

No. 4 versus 299?

This was supposed to one of those blindfold-and-cigarette games; Fullerton Coach Bob Hawking had joked that whoever put this one on the schedule “ought to be shot.” You knew this was a joke because Hawking was quick to make it clear that he was the one, presumably of sound mind and body, who booked it.

But UCLA had opened defense of its 11th NCAA title in Maui last week, with losses against Santa Clara and Vanderbilt. (Oddly, no sixth-place banner in the 1995 Maui Invitational was raised to the Pauley rafters Tuesday.) So where there had not been one iota of hope before, the Titans approached the Bruins with, in their minds, at least a stone’s-throw chance.

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“I really felt that if we executed our game plan, we could win,” Hawking claimed. “We had the chance to execute it, but we didn’t for most of the game.”

Leading UCLA by a point at intermission doesn’t qualify as clinical execution?

Hawking shook his head.

“We hung in the game,” he said, “because we competed. We did that by clawing and scratching--what a bunch of good athletic guys will do in a situation like this.

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“But, overall, this was not a Van Gogh in terms of us running our stuff.”

It was, however, a step forward from the finger-paint messes that accompanied Hawking’s first group of Titans from defeat to defeat last season, en route to a 7-20 finish. Fullerton was even with UCLA in rebounds (17-17) at halftime and had forced four more turnovers (11-7) to lead by a point even while shooting just 39.4% from the field.

“No one will out-guts us,” Hawking said, and for a half, intestinal fortitude was enough. But as the game wore on, Fullerton’s three-guard attack could not withstand the constant pounding of the taller, stronger Bruins, who finally figured out how to execute the pass underneath in the last 15 minutes.

The Titans had no one who could keep up with UCLA’s 6-10 freshman center Jelani McCoy or 6-9 forward J.R. Henderson, who combined for 23 points in the second half.

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“The size differential between the two teams finally showed in the second half,” Hawking said. “They were able to pound the ball inside on us almost at will. Obviously, we were outmanned.”

But it was still interesting until the last five minutes, which was about 36 more than anyone expected before tip-off.

“I thought coming in our guys were poised and prepared to play in this environment,” Hawking said. “Both of our teams are very young, but this was their fourth game and we were playing our first. No question, that gave them a tremendous edge coming in.”

All things considered, though, Hawking determined this was “a good game for Cal State Fullerton. We hope to continue this series.”

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If only Jim Harrick concedes to a rematch.


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