For a while, Cal State Northridge’s Big Sky Conference game Thursday night at Montana State was a carbon copy of Saturday’s come-from-behind victory over Eastern Washington.
But there were about 5,700 differences this time.
As they did Saturday at home, the Matadors made an impressive run early in the second half after a sloppy first half, but with 5,733 Worthington Arena fans loudly cheering against them, they could not maintain their play and ended up losing, 85-68.
Welcome to traveling in the Big Sky.
“They’ve got to learn what it’s like on the road in the conference,” said Northridge assistant Mike Johnson, who along with assistant Eddie Hill ran the team while Coach Bobby Braswell stayed in Los Angeles for his brother’s funeral. “It’s not the same.”
Johnson conceded that Braswell’s absence hurt the Matadors down the stretch.
“He’s their leader,” Johnson said. “They love him to death. And I’m sure he probably would have gotten a little different response than we did.”
Braswell is expected to join the Matadors sometime today, in time for Saturday’s game at Montana.
The Matadors (6-7, 2-1 in conference), who failed in their bid to go over .500 for the first time in seven Division I seasons, still looked like they might win after erasing an 11-point second-half margin with a 16-5 run in a little over five minutes. Northridge used aggressive man-to-man defense and rebounding and the quick transition game that is the team’s strength.
But just when Northridge tied the score, 50-50, with 14:07 to play, Montana State (8-7, 2-1) switched to a zone defense.
“I think we got a little tentative [against the zone],” said point guard Trenton Cross. “We played teams with a zone and worked on it in practice but I don’t think we were attacking the way we should.”
Northridge, which didn’t take the lead at any point in the second half, was still within 61-59 with 8:17 to play.
That’s when things really fell apart.
The Bobcats forced several turnovers and converted easy transition baskets on their way to a 19-4 run.
“There was a point where I felt we were about to put them away or take the lead, but then we let up,” Cross said. “We made a bunch of little mistakes and it added up.”
As the mistakes mounted, so did the crowd’s decibel level.
“It’s hard to come back on the road in the conference,” said Montana State forward Mike Badding. “It’s so much more intense and harder to come back than in a preseason game.”
Derrick Higgins led the Matadors with 16 points, while his brother, Keith, scored 10 and pulled down 11 rebounds. Cross, Tom Samson and Gerald Rhoden also each scored 10.
Northridge forward Kevin Taylor, who entered the game as the team’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, scored only two points in 16 minutes, missing much of the game because he was bothered by asthma.
Harry Scott led Montana State with 15 points. Mel Claxton, one of three former Ventura College players on the Bobcat roster, added 10 points.