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Matadors Run Out of Gas in Arizona

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The comeback came by beating all odds.

Cal State Northridge battled the thin air of high altitude, the hot air of courtside hecklers and a 20-point deficit to force overtime Saturday night against Northern Arizona.

The collapse came by beating themselves.

The Matadors dissolved into a nightmarish flood of foolish fouls, poor shot selection and porous defense, resulting in a runaway 96-79 defeat before 2,150 in a Big Sky Conference opener at the Walkup Skydome.

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Northern Arizona (9-3), two-time defending Big Sky Conference champion, exhibited more poise and patience in overtime than Northridge (8-5) to secure its fifth consecutive victory and 20th in a row at home.

Ross Land, one of the nation’s top three-point shooters who scored 23 points, made a three-pointer from the top of the key in the opening seconds of overtime, and quickly Northridge was in the familiar position of trailing.

The Matadors did not handle it well, rushing shots and making only two of nine in overtime.

“That’s our easy-way-out offense,” said Bobby Braswell, Northridge coach. “Take quick shots, put up three-pointers.”

Losing patience isn’t wise against the Lumberjacks, who take their time and make shooting look as easy as tossing a pebble into the Grand Canyon.

Northern Arizona led the nation in shooting percentage the last two seasons and is shooting 53.7% this season. The Lumberjacks made 30 of 52 shots against Northridge, including five of seven in overtime, when they outscored the Matadors, 21-4.

“We were running and running to get back in the game, and when Land hit that [shot] we were right back in the comeback mode,” guard Carl Holmes of Northridge said.

“Then the fatigue factor set in.”

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While catching their breaths, the Matadors became distracted by courtside hecklers who spun silly puns off their names. Even sillier, several players responded by talking back, grinning or glaring.

“I can’t speak for my teammates, but I should have ignored [the hecklers] and I didn’t,” said Rico Harris, who scored 21 points for Northridge.

Derrick Higgins had the last word in regulation, making a three-pointer from the baseline with 27 seconds left to tie the score, 75-75, the first time since early in the first half Northridge did not trail.

The basket culminated a spirited comeback from a 54-34 deficit with 14:20 to play. Holmes, who equaled his season-high with 14 points, and Harris keyed the surge.

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Harris, in his second game after missing five because of a hip pointer, made two three-pointers in a 30-second span to trim the Lumberjacks’ lead to 68-66 with four minutes to play.

Northern Arizona missed three free throws down the stretch and Hewitt Rolle of Northridge made four of four from the line, the last two coming with 46 seconds to play and setting up Higgins’ shot.

But the momentum reversed in overtime, depriving Northridge of a chance to end a Lumberjacks’ home winning streak that began after the Matadors beat them in the 1997 Big Sky tournament.

“Northern Arizona is championship-tested,” Braswell said. “They know how to get through adversity, and obviously we don’t.

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“Fatigue makes cowards of us all. You have to tell yourself you have five minutes to win a basketball game, and find some energy to do it.”


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