Page 2 From The Tournament: Turn Down For Zot
ANAHEIM, Calif. — The buzzer sounded, the floodgates opened, and the fans stormed the Honda Center floor.
It was the first time the ‘Eater Nation had ever stormed the floor and the first time they had a reason to: UC Irvine finally punched its ticket to the Big Dance. The third-seeded Anteaters made history in a 67-58 win over No. 5 Hawaii, in the Big West Conference championship game, Saturday night at Honda Center.
After coming so close the last two years, the Anteaters and their loyal Zot followers finally gave the school that coveted bid.
“When we got here my sophomore year, we had the mindset that we were going to win everything,” said senior guard Will Davis II. “Then we realized that it wasn’t that easy. Last year, we had the same mindset and we lost. This year, I felt like we had to make it - it’s my senior year and there’s no other option. We came out and we played our hearts out and we played victorious.”
Davis was named the tournament MVP after becoming the first player in tournament history to record three-straight double-doubles. Luke Nelson, who struggled with his signature three-point shot but with little else, was named to the all-tournament team after a 17-point performance.
This was the moment he had been waiting for since he recorded college games late at night as a kid growing up in England.
“That was one of the things that drew me here,” Nelson said. “Knowing I could be a part of school history and do something special that has never been done here before.”
With Nelson polished and poised from his national team experience, head coach Russell Turner knew that experience would be influential for the Anteaters (21-12, 11-5). Saturday night, we saw exactly what Turner saw on all of those overseas visits.
“The reason i recruited him is so we would have nights like tonight,” Turner said. “Luke was 1-for-5 tonight from three, but every time he shot it I expected it to go in, because I’ve seen him in big games that were as meaningful for his national team as they were for our program tonight.”
The Rainbow Warriors (22-13, 8-8) ended their Cinderella run after dropping a 13-point lead. The season had its share of ups and downs for the ‘Bows, and there’s probably going to be little respite in the offseason, but everyone now knows what they can accomplish if they believe in one another as a group.
“Of course I wanted to go to the tournament and win the championship, but at the same time, we had a 22-win season,” said senior guard Garrett Nevels. “No one expected us to be here, but we stuck together as a team and made it this far and had a great season.”
CSUN Reels Off Back-To-Back Tournament Titles
ANAHEIM, Calif. — The saying goes that history always repeats itself, but CSUN head coach Jason Flowers spent the better part of the week trying to convince everyone that his second-seeded Matadors team is somehow different from the one that won the Big West Conference Women’s Tournament last year.
That not-same team with five starters that made history by becoming the first women’s team to reach the NCAA Tournament repeated the accomplishment Saturday afternoon when CSUN defeated No. 1 Hawaii 67-60 in the Big West Championship game.
The only explanation is that it’s the same group but with different magic.
“We struggled a lot this season. We kept asking, ‘What’s wrong, what’s different from last year?’” said tournament MVP Ashlee Guay. “What helped us to get even better than last year was that we never gave up. Everyone came together.”
It took a certain amount of self-realization on the part of the Matadors after a 4-5 start to the conference slate. The key values and elements from last season weren’t gone, but they just needed to be reemphasized and reestablished.
“Once conference tournament hit, we really bought into what we needed to do,” said senior guard Cinnamon Lister. “I think that one of the biggest challenges was re-buying into his system.”
Part of that meant hours and hours of practicing with a tennis racket as a shot blocker. It’s not a favorable drill, but against a Hawai‘i team that led the conference in blocks, it’s a drill the team now has a little more appreciation for.
“Honestly, I hate (going up against Hawaii),” said senior guard Janae Sharpe. “I get my shot blocked every time. But if you buy into what they are saying and what they are telling you, and just listen and apply, we win against teams like Hawai‘i and teams that are way bigger than us.”
Hawaii (23-8, 14-2) was clearly the better shooting team in the first half, but CSUN (23-9, 11-5) was the better defensive team. And the ‘Bows deficit continued to build early in the second half. The key for Hawai‘i was obvious: Take away Guay. And it became more obvious in the second half when she scored the first six points for the Matadors.
Guay never went away, scoring 22 points with five rebounds and six assists. The Matadors snapped the Rainbow Wahine’s 15-game win streak, but their season hasn't ended. UH will play in the WNIT.
“This one hurts,” said UH senior guard Shawna-Lei Kuehu. “We’ve accomplished so much this year and this season. I’m going to take some time to let the wounds heal. But it’s not over.”