Cal State Fullerton can plan another anniversary celebration.
The Titans were boy wonders in 1978, when they reached the West Regional final of the NCAA tournament. They booked a return engagement in 2008 but were dismantled by Wisconsin.
After three days of hard work, where they repeatedly bullied their way to the hoop, the Titans are going back again. Their 71-55 victory over UC Irvine in the Big West Conference tournament final at the Honda Center on Saturday put them on the selection committee’s to-do list.
Kyle Allman dared Irvine players to stop him and Khalil Ahmad made a second-half appearance to drive the Titans (20-11). Allman had 26 points and Ahmad, held scoreless in the first half, scored 23 in the second half, including 12 during a surge that helped the Titans take a 57-43 lead.
Irvine (18-17) was left breathless in the face of the Titans’ relentless pressure.
Allman signaled that the end was near with a breakaway dunk with four minutes left.
The Titans were on their way to the NCAA tournament again, though the Big West’s place in it has changed considerably through the years. Only one Big West team — Hawaii in 2016 — has gone beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 1992.
A year ago, UC Davis was sent to Dayton, where it beat North Carolina Central. The reward was a game against Kansas, the Midwest Regional’s top-seeded team. The Jayhawks crushed the Aggies 100-62.
Teams from the Big West, formerly known as the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn., are 48-64 in NCAA tournament play. But teams not coached by Jerry Tarkanian (Long Beach State and UNLV) have won only 13 of 49 games. The only non-Tarkanian team to reach a regional final was Fullerton in 1978.
But an NCAA spot was still a prize that the Titans and Anteaters sought.
The Titans led 29-25 at halftime. Their scorched-earth style had the Anteaters struggling through the first five minutes.
Allman had Irvine heads whirling. He scored nine of Fullerton’s first 11 points and created the other bucket with a steal that sent Austen Awosika off on an uncontested layup.
The Titans led 18-11, but every time they tried to press their advantage, Evan Leonard propped up the Anteaters. He followed a drive to rim that resulted in a three-point play with another layup on a fastbreak to keep Irvine in Fullerton’s wake.
Leonard had 18 points in the first half, making seven of nine field goals.
The rest of the Anteaters were a combined three for 24.
Channon Fluker scored 24 points and Tessa Boagni 23 to lead Cal State Northridge (19-15) to a 63-55 victory over regular-season champion UC Davis (25-6) in the women’s championship game.
The 6-foot-4 Fluker made nine of 13 shots and had 17 rebounds.
The 6-2 Boagni, who was named the tournament MVP, was nine of 16 from the field and had eight rebounds.
Northridge was one of 13 on three-point attempts but cleaned up inside, scoring 42 of its 65 points in the paint.