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Tears Turn to Cheers for Titans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cal State Fullerton guard Kenroy Jarrett said he was crying as he walked off the floor at Titan Gym Saturday night after the Titans’ 80-75 loss to UC Santa Barbara.

But only a couple of minutes later, Jarrett learned that UC Irvine had beaten Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, giving the Titans the final berth in the Big West tournament this week.

“I wasn’t sure whether to smile or not right then,” Jarrett said. “But I’m happy now that we’re going to the tournament. It’s a whole new game there.”

It was that kind of bittersweet night for the Titans.

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“Is this the back door?” Titan assistant coach Todd Johnson asked as he walked into the Titan locker room, an obvious reference to the fact that the Titans had to have help from the Anteaters, who had lost 14 consecutive games.

But back door or not, the Titans will move on to Reno, where they will play Boise State, the top-seeded team from the Eastern Division, in Thursday’s first round.

Santa Barbara (14-12, 12-4), the top team in the Western Division, shot 56% from the floor and received strong performances from seniors Josh Merrill and B.J. Bunton to turn back a Fullerton charge in the second half. Merrill scored 23 points and Bunton 22. They were a combined 19 of 28 from the field.

The Titans (13-13, 7-9) trailed by only five points with slightly less than four minutes left after falling behind by 19 points early in the second half. Despite strong second-half efforts by Jason Cunningham and Ike Harmon, the Titans couldn’t get closer than that.

Cunningham led the Titans with 20 points and Harmon had 19. Jarrett, playing his fourth consecutive game with a broken bone in his right hand, finished with 12.

Fullerton shot 23.5% from the floor in the first half and made only three of 14 three-point shots against Santa Barbara’s zone. Mark Murphy, the Titans’ top three-point scorer, missed all five three-point shots he took in the first half and was two of 14 for the game. The Titans made nine of 30 three-pointers and finished shooting 41% from the field.

“I was disappointed the way we closed out the regular season,” Titan Coach Bob Hawking said. “There’s little to feel good about when you lose your last two games. But we’ve got a second life now and we need to try to take advantage of it. We played well in the tournament last year.”

Harmon said he was encouraged by the team’s comeback in the second half. “If we pick up where we left off in the tournament, we’ll be fine,” Harmon said. “We played a lot better in the second half.”

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Hawking, however, wasn’t happy with his team’s defense.

” We didn’t defend their inside people well enough to deserve to win,” he said. “We went in knowing we had to stop Merrill and Bunton, but they were the reason Santa Barbara won.”

The Titans played most of the second half without Matt Caldwell, who injured a hip and ankle diving for a loose ball near the sideline late in the first half.

Cunningham said he thought Fullerton’s defense improved in the second half when the Titans went to a man-to-man after playing zone in the first half. “We got moving better in the second half when we got out of the zone,” he said.

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The Gauchos shot 51.6% in the first half with Merrill going five for eight. Santa Barbara scored 10 straight points for a quick 10-2 lead and went on to build a 13-point lead midway through the first half. The Gauchos led by as many as 17 points 12 1/2 minutes into the first half when Merrill scored seven consecutive points.


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