March is a month when anything seems possible, when little-known teams can bust brackets and become national sensations in the space of a 40-minute basketball game.
For a few minutes at Little Caesars Arena on Friday, Cal State Fullerton seemed to be on that path.
The Titans, playing their first NCAA tournament game in a decade, are better known for their powerhouse baseball program. After an unexpected run to win the Big West tournament, the scrappy group without big names or a big budget forced their way into March Madness. Sleepless nights. First-class airfare. Interviews. Police escorts for the team bus.
Reality intervened as second-seeded Purdue pulled away in the second half to beat Fullerton 74-48 in the first round of the East Regional.
“Experiencing it firsthand was out of this world,” Titans junior Khalil Ahmad said. “At the end of the day we lost. But we’ll be back. You can count on that.”
Ten minutes into the first half, the guard sank a fadeaway jumper to give Fullerton (20-12) its first lead at 12-11. A small group of supporters adorned with blue and orange beads roared. The school’s elephant mascot, Tuffy the Titan, stomped its gray feet.
This is what the roster cobbled together with players from four states and five foreign countries wanted. This is what Dedrique Taylor must have had in mind as the Pomona native struggled through losing seasons in his first three years as coach of the Titans before scraping together a 17-15 record last year.
The lead lasted 41 seconds against Purdue’s depth, talent and size, and the Titans trailed by nine at the half.
Purdue’s basketball budget is about $8 million, almost five times that of the Titans.
Fullerton’s resume this season — the 211th-toughest schedule in the country, No. 131 RPI, the 42-point loss to USC — isn’t that of your usual tournament team.
History stood in the way of the Titans too. Only eight 15th-seeded teams have won a first-round game in tournament history. Even by March standards, those odds are long.
The Boilermakers (29-6), who face Butler in the second round Sunday, took advantage in the second half of the ragged game plagued by turnovers, fouls and poor shooting by both teams.
Isaac Haas, the 7-foot-2, 290-pound center for Purdue, snatched rebounds at will and, along with the rest of the team’s enormous front line, forced Fullerton to settle for long jump shots.
“I didn’t expect him to be that big,” said Titans senior Arkim Robertson, who drew the unenviable assignment of guarding Haas much of the game despite being five inches shorter.
Midway through the second half Haas, who had 10 rebounds in 15 minutes, fractured his right elbow — the injury didn’t appear serious at the time — and will miss the remainder of the tournament.
Vincent Edwards and Carsen Edwards, not related, each added 15 points for the Boilermakers, helping them to outscore Fullerton by 17 points in the second half. Kyle Allman, most valuable player at the Big West tournament, scored a game-high 21 points for the Titans. But they almost had as many turnovers (17) as field goals (18).
“Their size kind of messed with us,” Allman said.
The scent of an upset vanished so completely that the dance-off between Purdue Pete, the school’s cartoonish mascot, and Tuffy the Titan to “U Can’t Touch This” drew the loudest cheers of the second half.
“In spite of the outcome, this group of guys made history for our school,” Taylor said. “I think this is most definitely a springboard for this group moving forward, just like last year’s little bit of success we had that catapulted us to the next level.”
In the Fullerton locker room afterward, players and coaches picked at plates of rice, beans and fajitas. Half-empty bottles of blue and orange Powerade littered the carpet. Freshman Josh Pitts held up his No. 24 jersey with most of the “2” ripped off after an encounter with one of Purdue’s big men. No one said much. They flashed smiles and reluctantly stuffed gear into backpacks. They looked as if they didn’t want to leave.