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Northridge Rises Above Turmoil

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frozena Jerro plopped into her seat at a news conference Thursday and marveled at the odd chain of events.

“It’s been quite a road, huh?,” someone offered.

Jerro, the women’s basketball coach at Cal State Northridge, must have thought to herself, “If you only knew.”

Northridge’s first-round NCAA tournament game against host Colorado State tonight culminates a series of episodes that producer-script writer David E. Kelley would have had trouble dreaming up.

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From the top:

* Coach Michael Abraham’s rabid recruiting stocked a downtrodden Matador program that was 21-138 from 1990-97 with fleet guards (mostly from Southland high schools) and beefy post players (mostly from Europe).

* Northridge began to turn it around in 1997-98, going 14-14, but Abraham missed out on this season’s Big Sky Conference championship because he was carted away in handcuffs by FBI agents in November, charged with distributing crack cocaine.

* Next to leave were Northridge Athletic Director Paul Bubb and his top assistant, Judith Brame, forced to resign after allegations surfaced that former players had informed them of concerns that Abraham was involved with drugs.

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Brame had been appointed interim coach, so the team needed its third coach in a week. Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson asked the players to go ahead and pick somebody, and Jerro, an ebullient 28-year-old assistant, was their unanimous choice.

The team grew unusually close and it soon became apparent the Matadors were unusually talented too.

They won their first three games, stumbled and dropped four of five, then roared to 17 victories in their last 20 games. The No. 15-seeded Matadors (21-7) are riding a seven-game winning streak that includes a sweep of last week’s Big Sky tournament.

No wonder they aren’t especially troubled by facing the No. 2-seeded Rams (31-2) and their All-American guard, Becky Hammon. Or by the rash of media attention they’ve received all week.

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“All that stuff that happened at the beginning makes this an intriguing story,” Jerro said. “So we knew it would come up.

“It’s been a wonderful collective effort. We are not just happy to be here. We will compete and do our best to win a basketball game.”

Tournament Notes

The loosest of the four teams at Colorado State is UC Santa Barbara (26-3), which has a 21-game winning streak and will play Southwest Missouri State (24-6). “You’ll see us smile a lot and have a good time,” guard Stacy Clinesmith said. “It’s not like a big job.” Hard work may be necessary, though, to stop the Bears (24-6), who boast the nation’s leading scorer in guard Jackie Stiles. Said Stiles: “I’d like to hold her to zero points. That would be nice.”

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