CSUN beats Cal State Fullerton in OT for first Big West win

NORTHRIDGE — As Cal State Northridge basketball coach Trent Johnson – in his first season without the interim tag attached to his title – watched his team open Big West Conference play with eight straight losses, he had a consistent message: Stay positive with each other.

“We’re building here,” Johnson told his team. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

On Saturday night, the attitude was finally reflected on the scoreboard when the Matadors claimed their first conference victory of the season with a 69-66 overtime win against Cal State Fullerton.

“Anytime you win, it feels good,” said Johnson, whose team had not won since a Dec. 22 game against San Diego. “The bottom line is: These guys have done a good job of battling, staying the course. The ball hasn’t bounced our way at times.”

With Northridge (4-16 overall, 1-8 Big West) ahead 68-66 in the final seconds, Fullerton’s Jalen Harris missed a mid-range jumper that rattled in and out. Harris later had another chance to tie the score as time expired with Fullerton (10-11, 4-5) down by three, but his running 3-point attempt missed.

CSUN scored the first five points of overtime, with a deep right wing 3-pointer by Atin Wright giving the Matadors a 66-61 lead.

De’Sean Allen-Eikens led the way with 22 points and a 5-of-8 showing from behind the arc, to go with eight rebounds. Wright added 18 points and four 3-pointers to go with three steals.

“Finally,” Allen-Eikens said. “We got the monkey off our back. We’ve had a lot of close games. Just nice to finally grab one.”

Allen-Eikens said Northridge approached the game like a “must-win.”

“Our backs were against the wall,” he said.

Fullerton was without leading scorer Latrell Wrightsell Jr., who was out with COVID-19, for the second straight game.

The two teams went back-and-forth in the second half, with neither leading by more than five points. Wright sank a pair of free throws to tie the score at 61-61 with less than a minute to play in regulation. After a steal on the ensuing Fullerton possession, Wright had the ball with a chance to win, but Northridge could not get a shot off before the buzzer sounded.

Both teams opened the game shooting well from distance, combining to make seven of the first eight attempts. Allen-Eikens made his first four 3-point shots to help Northridge open a 25-17 lead.

But Fullerton ended the first half on a 13-2 run as Northridge cooled off from 3-point range, finishing the first 20 minutes by missing nine of its last 10 from behind the arc. Garrison Wade and Harris both made 3-pointers to end the half to give Fullerton a 33-29 lead.

Harris had 13 of his 17 points by halftime, with three 3-pointers as Fullerton shot 64% from long range in the first half. Max Jones finished with a team-high 18 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots for the Titans (10-11, 4-5). Vincent Lee finished with 10 points and six rebounds.

Fullerton committed 11 second-half turnovers and went 17 for 28 from the foul line for the night, including four misses in overtime, to drop below .500 in conference play.

“Even though they haven’t won a game in conference, they’re still a good basketball team,” Fullerton coach Dedrique Taylor said. “And we can’t keep killing ourselves by doing silly stuff, and that’s what the game came down to.”

Taylor said that with or without Wrightsell, who entered the contest as the fifth-leading scorer in the Big West, his Titans were good enough to win.

“We’ve never not been in a game,” Taylor said. “It always comes down to us not doing what needs to be done to win the basketball game, period.”

Northridge next faces UC San Diego (7-13, 2-6) at home on Thursday, while Fullerton will host UC Irvine (13-6, 6-1) the same night.

Though the Matadors haven’t had the season they would like so far, Allen-Eikens said the mood in the locker room – set by Johnson – remains positive.

“We know we’re right there,” Allen-Eikens said. “We’re trying to build something here. That’s the only way you can go about it.”

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