After trailing by as much as 10 points in the second half, the Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball team used a huge defensive stretch to defeat UC Santa Barbara 64-58 to advance to the Big West Tournament finals.
The Titans did not give up a single field goal in the final seven minutes of the game, as the Gauchos made only one of their final 12 shots.
“Our group of guys didn’t want to go home,” said CSUF head coach Dedrique Taylor. “Down the stretch, they just started to believe and started to galvanize each other. What I think you saw was just the defense, we just swarmed them.”
Senior guard Khalil Ahmad led the Titans with 28 points, shooting 9-for-14 from the field. The Titans shot 46.3 percent, while UCSB made 39.2 percent of their shots.
Despite only scoring 3 points in the game, forward Jamal Smith received praise from Taylor.
“He brought his lunch pail and hard helmet tonight,” Taylor said. “His energy, his effort, his leadership was on full display.”
The Titans’ plus/minus was +12 with Smith on the court.
The Titans are inching their way closer to the lead against UC Santa Barbara.
— Daily Titan Sports (@DTitanSports) March 16, 2019
The Titans got off to a slow start, making only one of their first six shots and going through a three-minute dry spell after the first media timeout.
CSUF turned it around right after by making their next five shots but still trailed the Gauchos by one with over 11 minutes left in the first half.
The Gauchos held the slight edge for the remainder of the half, leading by as much as 5 points, but Ahmad ended the first half with a layup right before the buzzer to cut the deficit to 3.
The Gauchos’ discipline left the Titans without a single free throw attempt in the first half. Allman led the Titans with 8 points after 20 minutes of play, while UCSB’s Heidegger had 9.
Both the Titans and Gauchos shot from the field similarly in the first half, with CSUF shooting 46.2 percent and UCSB at 44.4 percent.
Coming into this game, UCSB was 16-0 when leading at the half.
— Titans Men’s Basketball (@FullertonMBB) March 16, 2019
UCSB’s JaQuori McLaughlin opened the second half with a 3-pointer, but CSUF responded with a 7-0 run to take the lead.
UCSB caught fire after giving up the lead, going on a 14-3 run that included three 3-pointers that gave them a 10-point advantage.
The Titans stayed within striking distance and used a 7-0 run to tie the game at 54 with under three minutes left, holding the Gauchos scoreless for over four minutes.
Ahmad’s layup with 1:12 left in the game gave the Titans the lead and they never looked back, ending the night with an emphatic Ahmad dunk with two seconds left.
With the Honda Center filled with mostly Titans fans, Ahmad believes the crowd amped his team up.
“It’s like the sixth man, hearing them cheer for us gives us energy,” Ahmad said.
The Titans will face UC Irvine in a rematch of last year’s tournament final with a spot in the NCAA tournament on the line.
Despite dropping both meetings against the Anteaters this year, Smith believes his team is ready to make a trip to March Madness.
“We know what happened in the regular season and that definitely didn’t slip our minds, so we’re coming at full force and we’re more connected than ever,” Smith said.
The Big West title game is scheduled to tipoff at 9 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN2.