DETROIT – Fans clapped, the Cal State Fullerton Spirit Squad cheered and the Titan Varsity Band played as the final buzzer sounded in Little Caesars Arena. Although Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball had suffered a 74-48 loss at the hand of Purdue University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the program and its supporters expressed resounding praise for the Titans.
To the rest of the nation, CSUF was merely a 15-seed that was little more than a speed bump for the No. 2 Purdue Boilermakers. However, for those close to the team, this appearance in the Big Dance meant much more.
“In spite of the outcome, this group of guys made history for our school,” said Titans Head Coach Dedrique Taylor. “No matter what happens the rest of their lives, they’ll always be able to go back to Cal State Fullerton and be honored in the history of Cal State Fullerton basketball.”
The Titans won 20 games this season for the first time since 2011-12. Prior to Friday, the program had not appeared in an NCAA Tournament game for 10 years.
CSUF point guard Austen Awosika said he and his teammates knew they could compete with elite programs after their second game of the season. Although they lost to Saint Mary’s, who was ranked No. 21 in the country at the time, their level of play through most of the game gave them confidence in their ability as a team.
Now that he’s played on one of the biggest stages in all of college basketball, Awosika has high hopes for the future of the program.
“It shows that what we’re doing works and when we buy in and stick to what the coaches tell us, we can go places,” Awosika said.
Guard Jamal Smith shared similar sentiments in the locker room shortly after the game.
“We felt really confident coming out… They are a good team with good players so that’s what they do, but we still feel confident that we can play at this level. We feel confident we can get here next year,” Smith said.
Most of the players were visibly upset after the loss. Guard Kyle Allman gave concise answers with a monotone voice and a straight face during the postgame press conference.
Following the presser, Allman retreated to his family, who traveled to watch him play in the game. He was seen on Instagram smiling with his younger brother later that day, a sign he’d calmed down.
One smile may not seem like a huge indicator of happiness for most people. This is not the case for Allman, whose teammates regularly point out whenever the Big West conference leading scorer is cheesing on social media.
Smiling kj.. RT for 100 yrs of good luck? https://t.co/RaLrfm3VpR
— Lil? (@oh_snaap25) March 12, 2018
Allman even told a Titans fan account on Twitter to delete a picture of him smiling after they won the Big West Tournament. So yes, voluntarily posting a picture of himself smiling spoke volumes about his mood.
Forward Arkim Robertson was the sole senior on CSUF’s roster. He only scored one point in his 13 minutes Friday, but his experience with the program overshadowed his less-than-desirable performance.
The big man held back tears while he answered questions following his final game.
“Last year, we lost in the semifinals to UC Davis and this year we won the championship and came here,” Robertson said. “It means that the work we put in over the summer really, really helped. To get this far, it’s amazing. As Coach said it’s an accomplishment we’ll never forget.”
Hard work defined the 2017-18 men’s basketball team. Aside from the work over the summer Robertson mentioned, Taylor, Awosika and guard Khalil Ahmad talked endlessly about how every player on the team constantly worked on their game throughout the entire season.
Awosika said this season played out differently than last because the team bought into the direction the coaches had for them at the start.
“The best thing, the difference between this year and last year is that everybody gets in the gym. You see everybody grow throughout the year. There’s no beef on the team. Everybody wants to see everyone else succeed,” Awosika said.
Fullerton’s roster also featured six freshmen who traveled with the team and experienced the Big West and NCAA tournaments in their first years with the program. Ahmad said he hopes their confidence reaches an all-time high next season after playing in multiple big games.
Their hard work and selflessness all year was also noticed by Awosika.
“They had some guys in front of them but they never pouted and never acted selfishly. They always pushed for the guy in front of them to do well,” Awosika said. “For people that are that young to do that, it’s big.”
The Titans realized they had a target on their back during a hot start to conference play. A four-game skid following that start forced them to refocus and overcome teams giving their best effort to defeat CSUF.
Ahmad acknowledged Big West opponents will have a greater desire to beat the Titans because of their success this season.
“They’re going to want to prove that ‘If we beat them, we should be able to go to the tournament.’ It comes with going to a tournament like this. It’s nothing we can’t handle,” Ahmad said.
For the first time in a long time, Taylor praised his team after a big loss. He remained calm and failed to keep a smile off his face while describing how much the moment meant to him.
He highlighted that the police escorts to the airport and the arena brought him joy because it reminded him of the work his guys put in. While he was excited for the brief break he’ll give the team once they return, he knew what it would take to return to this platform next season.
“I think we’ve got to take this to another level, especially with having a majority of our guys back in that locker room. We’ve already started talking about the work that needs to be done,” Taylor said.
Ahmad paused as he soaked in the fact that he played in an NCAA Tournament game. His smile quickly disappeared once he thought about the game.
“At the end of the day, we lost,” Ahmad said.
Then, he grinned again.
“But we’ll be back. You can count on that.”