NORTHRIDGE — Toward the latter portion of the second half, Cal State Northridge junior guard Josh Greene lay sprawled on his back, the victim of a collision that rendered him motionless with the beginnings of a discolored mouse under his left eye. Greene, however, proved to be as difficult to keep down as his team in a men's basketball clash Thursday with visiting UC Irvine.
Greene came back to hit consecutive threes in the final two minutes to help propel the Matadors to a 70-61 Big West Conference triumph that left coaches for both teams scratching their heads.
Northridge, which recently lost leading scorer Stephan Hicks to a knee injury, rallied from a 17-point first-half deficit and a 33-24 halftime disadvantage to win its third straight, all without Hicks.
"They have a tough mentality and I give them credit for that," UCI Coach Russell Turner said of Northridge, which has now won four of its last five on the heels of a seven-game losing skid to open conference play. " [The Matadors] had better energy than we had in the second half, no question ... They were physically dominant in the second half. Their team is younger than we are, but they were stronger and they were hungrier."
UCI (12-12, 6-5 in conference), remains starving for success in road conference games, in which it is 1-5. The Anteaters, 5-0 against Big West foes at home, saw Northridge, which made three of its first 21 field-goal attempts, shoot 50% after halftime, including five of 11 from three-point range, to complete a reversal of fortune fueled by effort and grit.
"I challenged them at halftime, and defense won the game," Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell said. "We held them to 37.5% shooting in the second half, and we were plus-nine in rebounding in the second half [after being minus-five in the first 20 minutes]. I'm blessed. I thank the Lord that we don't give up and we kept fighting and kept working. We're playing without [Hicks] and I don't know how we're doing it."
Northridge (13-11, 4-8) ended the first half on a 15-7 run, then scored the first eight points after the break. Greene, who finished with a game-high 21 points, drained his second three-pointer within a span of 27 seconds to give the hosts their first lead at 47-46, with 11:32 remaining.
UCI, which lost a 20-point lead at home on Saturday against UC Santa Barbara, but managed to win on a Mike Wilder three-pointer with eight seconds left, pulled even at 57 when Daman Starring banked in a 10-foot runner with 2:13 left.
But Greene, who exited the game after his blow to the head with 8:30 remaining, returned with a definitive answer. His three-pointer from the left corner put his team ahead for good, 60-57, with 1:50 left. Then, after a UCI miss, Greene swished a three-pointer from the right wing, then scowled, stomped and screamed into the din created by the home crowd, a tangible lightning rod for the emotion that the Matadors seemed to steal from the Anteaters.
"That's just me," said Greene, who was six for 12 from the field, four of seven from three-point range and five of six from the foul line, including three of four in the final 42 seconds. "I wear my heart on my sleeve and I try to give my all."
Turner said his players gave something less than their maximum.
"I was surprised that our team was unable to generate enough energy to play better in the second half, when there is so much riding on every game for our team," Turner said. "I think, we have to do a little self-reflection and ask ourselves how important it is to represent ourselves with our effort the way it should be done in college basketball … at some point, that is a reflection on all of us."
Starring led UCI with 15 points, while Chris McNealy had 12 in 26 minutes off the bench and Alex Young scored 10 and added five assists.
Wilder finished with five points, nine rebounds, three assists and three steals.
UCI ventures to Hawaii on Saturday.
Big West Conference
Cal State Northridge 70, UC Irvine 61
UCI – Wilder 5, Davis 4, Folker 9, Starring 15, Young 10, McNealy 12, Flowers 3, Clifford 2, Wright 1.
3-pt. goals – Young 2, McNealy 2, Wilder 1, Starring 1.
Fouled out – McNealy.
Technicals – None.
CSUN – Maxwell 11, Hale-Edmerson 0, Greene 21, Guei 4, Watson 0, Williams 14, Johnson 11, Perry 7, Drew 2.
3-pt. goals – Greene 4, Johnson 2, Williams 2.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – UCI, 33-24.
Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun