ANAHEIM, CA-So what will the Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball do now that they’re officially part of the NCAA Tournament? The Titans probably could not foresee that they would be able to take part in college basketball’s biggest party after they absorbed a 42-point blowout loss to Southern California back in their first game to tip off the season.
It’s funny how things turned out in the end. After rolling through three games in the Big West Conference Tournament, including its punctuation win against UC Irvine in the championship game, the Titans, you might say, have the last laugh.
By strength of its 71-55 victory against the Anteaters, Cal State Fullerton has marched its way to the first round of March Madness against Purdue. The Titans have come a long way since their 84-42 defeat to USC. Cal State Fullerton finished fourth in the Big West Conference regular season, but the Titans stepped up their play during the Big West tournament and have a chance to put on their Cinderella shoes.
“God is good,” said Cal State Fullerton coach Dedrique Taylor. “I don’t know what more to say other than that. This group of guys had an unbelievable accomplishment. They picked the right game to play their best basketball by far on so many different levels. Most importantly, the competitive spirit that we needed, the togetherness, the unselfishness that these guys displayed makes it hard for me to put into words how proud I am of this group.
“Validation and accomplishment that’s what this win means to me. All the hard work that these guys have put in has been validated and it is one of the greatest accomplishment for everyone involved in this program and I am extremely proud to be a part of it.”
After dropping that embarrassing defeat to the Trojans, Cal State Fullerton then took a 76-57 whipping at the hands of St. Mary’s. The Titans dropped three of their first four games to start off the season before they got their act together to win five games in a row after bumbling out of the gate.
But with the Anteaters, you really don’t know what team is going to show up against the Boilermakers. Could it be the team that caught its wings and took flight while it upset Big West Conference champion UC Davis? Is this the same Cal State Fullerton squad that won nine of their last 12 contests or the same Titans team that dropped a loss to Utah Valley?
Whatever the case may be, you can expect Cal State Fullerton to use their hybrid athletic ability to run up and down the court against Purdue.
“First and foremost. we can’t play with emotion it has to be passion because emotion eventually wears off,” Taylor said. “The second thing is to attach ourselves mentally to something very, very simple and just do that. And once you get into a rhythm add one thing to it and continue to expand and over the course of the game you will like where you are.”
Thanks to the relentless hustle and play by Kyle Allman and Khalil Ahmad, the Titans ran UC Irvine right out of the Honda Center, especially in the second half of the Big West Conference Tournament championship game. Allman scored a game-high 26 points, while Ahmad went for 23 to lead the charge for Cal State Fullerton to move on to the NCAA postseason for the first time since 2008.
“I knew I had to play well so there was no pressure,” said Allman, who earned tournament MVP honors. “I just played my game. My coach set me up to have success, so I feed off that energy and made my shots.”
The Big West Conference Tournament marked the third time the Titans and Anteaters would tangle with one another. The two teams played like it in the first half of the Big West Conference tourney title game with the Titans holding a slight 29-25 lead over the Anteaters going into halftime.
It was a complete performance by Cal State Fullerton, which commanded the lead for nearly 37 of the 40 minutes played. After Allman did most of his scoring damage during the first 20 minutes, Ahmad went off in the second period.
Cal State Fullerton outscored UC Irvine 42-30 in the second half to win decisively.
“Everything just clicked, offensively, defensively,” Ahmad said. “We played well together and on defense we kept getting stops after stops and everything worked out.”