Cal State Fullerton can’t keep pace with Duke in NCAA tournament loss

Duke forward Theo John blocks a shot by Cal State Fullerton guard Jalen Harris.
Duke forward Theo John blocks a shot by Cal State Fullerton guard Jalen Harris during the first half of the Titans’ loss Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

They stood in the long shadow of a legend, plucky upstarts hoping to upend the bluest of blue bloods, but understanding the odds were stacked against them.

Cal State Fullerton knew all too well what it was like to face down those long odds. Few expected the 15th-seeded Titans to even compete in the Big West this season, let alone stand in the way of No. 2 seed Duke and its legendary coach’s last ride.

When the end finally came Friday, with Duke delivering the knockout blow in a 78-61 defeat for Fullerton, coach Dedrique Taylor put his arms around E.J. Anosike, assuring him of how far he’d come. The fifth-year senior had taken a winding path to Southern California, with stops at Sacred Heart and Tennessee.


After rallying from a double-digit deficit, seventh-seeded USC is unable to overcome a late surge by No. 10 Miami in a 68-66 NCAA tournament loss.

March 18, 2022

But in coming to Fullerton, Anosike had become the heart of an upstart that proved its mettle time and again Friday, even in defeat.

“We talked about this moment of time, believe it or not. We talked about winning a Big West Conference championship. We talked about getting to the NCAA tournament. That was a mission we both were on to continue to validate the work that both of us put in,” Taylor said. “I just thanked him for giving me the opportunity to be a part of what he did. And what he did, I think, was nothing short of powerful for our program.”

That will was evident Friday, even it wasn’t quite reflected in the final score. When Duke (29-6) jumped to a 17-4 lead, Fullerton refused to fold, firing back from its three-of-18 start from the field to cut the lead to six. Again and again, as the Blue Devils pushed ahead, the Titans (21-11) swung back.

That advantage was eventually too difficult to overcome as Duke bullied Fullerton with its size and sped past them in transition.

“Duke winds up with the ball,” Taylor said, “and the next thing you know it’s a dunk.”

But there would be no backing down from Fullerton, not until the inevitable was too impossible to ignore.

“A lot of teams, when they’re down in tough times, they would have quit,” Anosike said. “As long as our heart’s still beating, we’re going to keep going and still trying to play to win.”


For Anosike, that challenge was especially difficult on Friday. Matched with likely top-five pick Paolo Banchero, the 6-7 forward struggled to establish himself on the offensive end. He battled Banchero and the rest of Duke’s frontline for rebounds, getting 10.

Anosike was one of four Fullerton players to finish in double figures, but the Big West’s leading scorer was limited to just 10 points. Damari Milstead, another transfer who joined Fullerton this season from San Francisco, led the way with 12.

Their effort impressed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has more national titles (5) than Fullerton has tournament appearances (4).

“We beat a good team,” Krzyzewski said. “Dedrique’s team is an old veteran team, champions, and known for their defense. They’ve really played hard defensively against us.”

Ultimately, sheer force of will wasn’t enough to overcome a team with three likely NBA lottery picks. But in defeat, there was no question of whether Fullerton had left it all on the floor.

“We sacrificed a lot all year to be in this position going into this to make history,” Anosike said. “We believed. We gave ourselves a chance. We emptied our tank.”