Behind a career-high 34 points from Khalil Ahmad, the Titans defeated Utah Valley 91-83 in a down-to-the-wire finish in Titan Gym on Saturday night.
“That was a heck of a win,” Titans Head Coach Dedrique Taylor said. “We hit some adversity and some foul trouble, but we had guys come off the bench who stepped up and made some plays that allowed us to come out victorious tonight.”
The Titans got off to a hot start, sinking four of their first five shots, including a pair of threes.
Fullerton and Utah Valley collaborated for the highest-scoring first half of the season for the Titans at 41-40. Both teams shot above 50% from the field and the Titans stayed above that mark from behind the arc as well.
Ahmad continued the reign of terror he started last game in the half, leading all scorers with 15 points while shooting 40% from three in the first half.
He believes his shot has improved since the beginning of the season.
“I’ve slowed down and played the game in a more calm and under control pace,” Ahmad said. “The shots come easier.”
The fireworks continued in the second half. The teams were tied at 62 with 10 minutes left in the game, which is when the pace started to slow.
A slew of messy possessions plagued by controversial calls disrupted the flow of the game, resulting in echoing boos from the fans and coaches from both teams dismissively swatting at the air after calls they disagreed with.
Despite the tumultuous atmosphere in Titan Gym, the Titans continued to battle and play among themselves. After losing the lead for a minute, the Titans regained the advantage and did not trail for the rest of the contest, all while keeping their head coach from losing his cool.
“I have to really credit our staff and our players. I was out of control. I was extremely frustrated and out of control” Taylor said. “(They) stepped up and showed a great deal of composure that calmed me down.”
Ahmad stayed cool under pressure too. With the Titans up by 7 points with five minutes to go, the junior guard scored 10 straight points, including two contested jumpers from deep, giving the Titans an 11-point lead with just over three minutes remaining.
“Honestly, I wasn’t really thinking at all,” Ahmad said. “I was just in the zone I guess.”
What really gave the Titans the edge in the long haul was their hustle, or “championship plays” as the team calls them. Multiple possessions were elongated by an offensive rebound from Arkim Robertson, while opponent possessions were cut short by on-ball steals and Titans dove for tipped balls.
“In those types of games, (championship plays) are illuminated at a different level and this group has bought into those things,” Taylor said. “They’re talking coaches talk … When you get a team that understands that and that’s mature enough to talk that way to each other on the floor, I think the sky’s the limit.”
Austen Awosika totaled 12 points to go along with six rebounds, five assists, and two steals in his 31 minutes off of the bench to complement Ahmad’s heroics, something he credited to the coaching staff’s trust in him.
“When you don’t have to worry about making a mistake, you can really be yourself and play the game,” Awosika said.
After starting in the opener at USC, Awosika has come off the bench in every game since, but his strong play against the Wolverines hasn’t motivated Taylor to alter the lineup again.
“Right now, I think we’re in a rhythm. When you dance and you hit the DJ booth and you scratch the rhythm, you screw up the whole party, and I’m not trying to do that,” Taylor said.
The team’s rhythm will be put to the test as its last three games in December are on the road, starting with a post-finals week showdown with the UC at Berkeley on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 1:00 p.m.