It was a battle of two young, talented, tall, and feisty teams last night at the Thunderdome. For 31 minutes, the game see-sawed back and forth, as the CSUN Matadors came out firing and staked an 8 - 0 lead, before the UCSB Gauchos battled back with workman-like determination to take an 8-point lead of their own in the second half. And then IT hit. What had been an entertaining, evenly matched, and exciting game, turned into a mugging with about nine minutes left in the game. That's when CSUN (10 - 10, 1 - 7 BW) transformed from young, talented, tall, and feisty into BIG, STRONG, ATHLETIC, and NASTY.
The Matadors forced the Gauchos (7 - 11, 3 - 4 BW) into seven consecutive turnovers in a span of a few minutes, converting them into two monster dunks and game-changing jump shots. When the Gauchos were attempting to mount a comeback of their own to close out the game, the Matadors closed that door shut by crashing the offensive boards, many off of missed free throws. The result was a resounding 75 - 69 Matador victory over the Gauchos.
Without Big Alan Williams to patrol the paint, the freshmen Gaucho front court of Mitch Brewe and Sam Beeler were pushed around by the Matadors' Stephen Maxwell who looks more like a left tackle than a power forward. Yes, Maxwell had to work for his 27 points, but he EARNED every single one of them. Many were the result of putbacks on missed shots, as he wasn't exactly raining perimeter jumpers. His made shots were more the two-foot variety--if not the vicious, zero-foot ones. In fact, outside of the 2-foot zone, Maxwell couldn't hit the side of a backboard. The fundamentals of defensive rebounding apparently don't apply when the opponent you're supposed to block out looks like he was born in a weight room. Maxwell knows the buffet line, but he's obviously very familiar with the weight room.
When Maxwell wasn't stuffing the stat sheet with lay ups and lay ins, Stephan Hicks was draining feathery jumpers and finishing at the rim with elegant ease, good enough for 24 points. But let's be clear about the root cause of the outcome: it was the Matadors' ruthless pressure defense. Typical of Bobby Braswell-coached teams, the Matadors coaxed the Gauchos into numerous turnovers, using their superior athleticism and quickness to jump into passing lanes, and causing overall havoc in the Gauchos' offense, who otherwise played an inspiring game with good execution, typical of Bob Williams-coached teams. But it is rather difficult to run an offense when you can't even initiate the offense. In that brief 3-minute time frame, the Gauchos couldn't even get a shot off, and in the closing minutes, they couldn't keep the Matadors off the offensive boards. The Gauchos' own missed free throws sealed the victory for the Matadors, but perhaps that was also due to the emotional distress of committing so many turnovers.
Several Gauchos had their moments. Keegan Hornbuckle had a semi-break out game, tipping in shots to accrue nine points. Taran Brown hit some clutch 3-point shots to lead the Gauchos with 16 points and eight points, a stat line even Alan Williams would appreciate. Beeler had a break out game with a career-high 15 points, including shooting 6-of-6 from the field, to go with six rebounds. Kyle Boswell was being Kyle, making 3-of-6 from 3-point distance to finish with 15 points.
As usual, the Gauchos did not quit. But they lost their composure, something they've surprisingly avoided in previous close games, given their youth. Perhaps that youth showed a little bit last night, as Williams wasn't there to anchor their offensive sets and defensive assignments. However, it was still a thrilling game to watch, played by two young, exciting teams. One team later added BIG, STRONG, ATHLETIC, and NASTY to their resume.