Excitement reverberated on the walls of a packed Titan Gym for the homecoming game on Saturday, but the crowd couldn’t will the men’s basketball squad to a win over visiting UC Riverside.
The Highlanders (11-12 overall, 4-5 Big West) spoiled the festive mood of the Titans (9-14 overall, 1-7 Big West) with a 71-66 overtime win.
The game’s intensity to begin was electric, with CSUF jumping out to an 11-10 lead through the first four minutes of action.
“I thought it was a great atmosphere. I thought it gave us great energy early in the game. I thought these guys fed off of it,” Head Coach Dedrique Taylor said.
But over the next 12 minutes, Riverside threw off the Titans’ flow by playing tough on the defensive end. The Highlanders went on a 19-8 run to open up a 10-point lead at 29-19.
“Offensively, we didn’t get ourselves going, we didn’t find a rhythm offensively. Their physicality bothered us,” Taylor said.
The teams traded baskets in the final minutes of the half, but Riverside still carried an 8-point advantage into the locker room at the whistle.
Fullerton has been a dominant second-half team all season, and they continued the trend against the Highlanders, storming back after being down by as many as 13 points with 16:05 to play.
Senior Alex Harris led the charge for the Titans, scoring 11 of the next 18 Titan points to fuel a 13-0 run to give the home team the lead.
“I told myself if we win or lose, I was going to leave everything on the floor, and that’s what I did,” Harris said.
Highlander guard Jaylen Bland stopped the bleeding by hitting a 3-pointer to tie the game at 49 with 6:10 to play.
The final minutes of regulation had the crowd of 3,102 in suspense, as neither team could pull away in a game that featured 13 lead changes.
After Harris knocked down a pair of free throws to knot the game at 59, Riverside had 31 seconds to convert a game-winner. Bland took a contested jumper from the corner as the buzzer sounded, but could only hit the side of the backboard.
Overtime proved to have more edge-of-your-seat action. With the teams deadlocked at 64 with 1:38 to go, Riverside poured in the next four points, while the Titans missed their next two shots.
Down by two with 26 ticks on the clock, Fullerton was forced to foul Taylor Johns, Riverside’s leading scorer. Johns missed his second free throw, leaving a breath of life in the Fullerton squad.
Freshman forward Jamar Akoh rebounded the ball, but threw it out of bounds after a miscommunication with Harris. Akoh made good on the ensuing inbound by forcing a steal.
Harris got the ball and streaked up the court, taking an off-balanced 3-pointer that clanked off the rim with 12 seconds remaining. Johns got the ball for a breakaway dunk to seal the 71-66 win and spoil the homecoming festivities.
Harris (31 points) and Akoh (12 points, eight rebounds) both posted career-highs in points in the game, a bittersweet way to celebrate homecoming. Riverside was led by Bland (25 points, six rebounds) and Johns (18 points, 15 rebounds).
With the loss, the Titans remain the last team in the Big West Conference and are in jeopardy of not qualifying for the conference tournament. However, Taylor believes the team is making the right plays and will work out the kinks soon.
“We’ve got to stay true to who we are and what we believe in. We’re doing the necessary things to win the game, we’re just not finishing it,” Taylor said.
The Titans will look to right the ship against the Big West-leading UC Davis Aggies Thursday on the road.