The eighth-seeded Cal State Fullerton women’s basketball team battled toe-to-toe with top-seeded University of the Pacific, but their “Cinderella” run in the Big West Tournament was ended by a late three-pointer to down the Titans 54-51 on Friday at Honda Center.
The Titans looked confident to get another upset going into their matchup with the Tigers. CSUF got the first basket of the game 58 seconds in from forward Kathleen Iwuoha, who had her best game in a Titan jersey. That would be the only lead of the night for the Titans despite the fact that it was a tightly contested game.
Erica McKenzie hit a three-pointer on the Tigers’ next possession; that became a theme for the Tigers throughout the game. McKenzie hit another three-pointer in the Tigers next possession and another three minutes later. McKenzie’s third three-pointer opened up a double digit lead for Pacific at 14-4 six minutes into the game. The Tigers’ ball movement early in the game broke down the Titans’ zone defense and allowed for open shots. The Titans were forced to switch their defensive game plan.
“The zone didn’t go so well to start the game and so we had to try and defend them man-to-man, and it’s a tough team to play like that,” said Head Coach Marcia Foster. “They space, they shoot, they attack and kick out and they came out with a different set than what we normally see from them versus the zone.”
The man defense worked well for the Titans in the next 10 minutes. The Tigers were held without a field goal which allowed the Titans to get back within four with 5:56 remaining in the half. Forward Kendall Rodriguez broke the Tigers’ field goal drought with a three-point shot at the 4:09 mark after a stretch of 10:17 without a field goal. Rodriguez’s shot put the Tigers back up by eight, but Iwuoha countered by scoring on the next three CSUF possessions to bring the Titans within two with 2:24 to play in the half. McKenzie hit her fourth three-pointer of the half on the Tigers’ next possession before the Titans could tie it.
The Tigers led at the end of the first half 25-21. Iwuoha led the Titans with 12 points and eight rebounds and McKenzie led the Tigers with 12 points, all from shots behind the arc.
The Titans began the second half strong and tied the game at 29 with 17:20 remaining. The next eight minutes were tightly contested and the Tigers never led by more than five until they got a six point lead at 41-35 at the 9:13 mark from a layup by McKenzie. The Titans got back within two from a bucket by forward Mya Olivier and a pair of free throws by guard Tailer Butler.
The Tigers stretched their lead to seven with 5:40 to play off of a layup from guard Gena Johnson and a jumper and free throw from McKenzie. The Titans refused to go away and once again brought their deficit down to two over the next minute.
The Tigers owned a five point lead with only 55 seconds remaining. Guard Annie Park hit a mid-range jumper to bring it to a one possession game at 51-48 with 29 seconds remaining.
The Tigers were inbounding the ball with 19 seconds remaining and it appeared as though the Titans were going to have to foul, but Butler dove to the ground, stole the ball, and kicked it out to Olivier who hit the three-pointer to tie the game at 51 with 16 seconds left. The Tigers decided not to call a timeout. They moved the ball up the court quickly and McKenzie hit a three-pointer with five seconds remaining and silenced the CSUF fans who were standing and cheering just seconds before. On the ensuing possession, guard Chante Miles drove the lane and threw up a mid-range jump shot and it clanked off of the back of the rim as the buzzer sounded and the Tigers won 54-51.
Foster commented in the postgame interview about the final play of the game.
“We just needed a little more time to set it up. We tried to get Chante on the run and get a quick three up and I think we got lost in the moment and we didn’t get the shot we were looking for,” Foster said.
Iwuoha finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, both career bests. Miles was the only other double digit scorer for the Titans, tallying 10 points and five rebounds. McKenzie finished with 25 points for the Tigers off of 5-of-7 shooting from downtown and Rodriguez chipped in 14 points and seven rebounds to help the Tigers advance to the finals.
The Titans have a lot to look forward to next season. The roster featured only one senior, center Lauren Bushong. The rest of the team will return next season to compete for a Big West title.
“I am definitely ready to come back to this and ready for the next season. I’ll be a better player and we’ll have our team gel together as one, we’ll start early and not start late, and be back to this point and get further than this point,” Miles said.