Despite a terrible nonconference record and a 1-2 start to their Big West schedule, Cal State Fullerton has shown that they just might be a team to be reckoned with come Big West Tournament time.
The Titans (2-12 overall, 1-2 in the Big West) finished just 1-10 in nonconference games, but they turned the switch on the second the calendar hit January, opening Big West play with a 69-66 victory over UC Irvine. Fullerton followed that up with the conference’s toughest road weekend, a trip to play Cal Poly and perennial power UCSB. Two total points are all that separated the Titans 0-2 trip from being a great one, as they dropped a 55-54 decision to the Mustangs before falling to UCSB 59-58. Despite the losses however, the Titans showed that their influx of young talent has the potential to make them a scary opponent for any Big West team.
Any conversation about the Titans must begin with junior forward Toni Thomas, an All-Big West Conference First-Team selection, and All-Big West Tournament selection from a year ago. Thomas averaged 17.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season, figures that put her in the top-100 nationally. She has certainly picked up where she left off, ending the weekend with averages of 18.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. While her shooting percentages are down, Thomas remains one of the premier players in the conference.
With Thomas dominating since the moment she suited up for the Titans, it’s no surprise that Head Coach Dr. Maryalyce Jeremiah has turned to a new crop of freshmen to put the Titans over the top. Five freshmen play double-digit minutes for the Titans, but Dr. Jeremiah does not believe that the youth will hinder the team at all.
“The youth of our team does not necessarily mean inexperience in the sense that these freshmen do have the kinds of playing experience and success that is needed [to win],” Dr. Jeremiah said.
Freshman guard Lauren Chow, a 5’4″ sniper, is the star of the youth movement thus far. Chow is averaging 13.1 points per game, largely on the strength of her shooting touch from the free-throw line and beyond the arc. Chow is shooting a mind-boggling 96.7 percent at the charity stripe, with only one missed free throw in 30 attempts. In addition, she is filling it up from outside, with 33 made three-pointers on the season.
“Lauren Chow is the best three-point shooter we have had here, maybe ever, and her court awareness and passing will surprise everyone early,” Dr. Jeremiah said.
Showing that she can do it all, Chow also leads the Titans with 47 assists, and 32 steals. Despite some down shooting nights as of late, she has already caught the attention of some of the leagues most respected coaches. When the Titans came to Santa Barbara to play the Gauchos, a strong emphasis defensively for UCSB was limiting the inside-outside duo of Thomas and Chow.
“You certainly want to do a good job of controlling [Toni Thomas] but the reality is that she’s a good player and she’s going to get her points,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said. “Chow and Thomas give them a very effective inside-out combination.”
While much of the attention as of late has been heaped on the freshman class, it is the team’s only senior that remains the emotional core of the Titans. Alison Bennett had never been a fixture in the starting lineup until this, her final season, and she is certainly taking advantage of the opportunity. Bennett is averaging five rebounds per game – good for second on the team behind Thomas – while providing a steady presence on defense. Her overall stats don’t jump off the page, but make no mistake about it, Bennett brings intangibles to the table that are crucial for a young team looking to take the next step.
A season ago, Fullerton entered the Big West Tournament with an even seven and seven league record, before making a run all the way to the semifinals. Following back-to-back victories over University of the Pacific and Cal State Northridge, the Titans found themselves matched up against a UCSB team that they had not beaten in 27 consecutive tries. History held true that day and UCSB came away with a hard-fought 57-52 victory, and counting last weekends overtime victory, the Gauchos have now prevailed over the Titans in 29 consecutive meetings.
Cold shooting from both teams allowed Fullerton to open up a six point lead going into halftime, a lead that would soon be extended into double-digits in the second half. With 5:37 remaining in the game, the Titans opened up a 46-36 lead, but it was all downhill from there as the Gauchos flipped a switch and started their comeback. A 12-0 UCSB run erased the deficit and put the Titans in a two-point hole, and after forcing overtime, Fullerton was unable to prevail. Despite the disappointing overtime period, the Titans showed flashes of the talent that can take them to the next level, particularly when Chow hit a deep three-pointer with two seconds left to cosmetically touch up the 59-58 loss.
“Fullerton deserves a ton of credit,” French said. “They out-hustled and out-executed us, and they were the much better basketball team out there; they gave it everything they had for 45 minutes.”
If Fullerton is to make waves in the Big West Tournament this season, they will certainly have to overcome a UCSB team that more than has their number. However, if their recent close loss is any indication, the Titans have turned a corner, and they are only a step or two away from joining the Big West Conference elite. Only time will tell if this is the season where Fullerton finally breaks through, but one thing is for certain: With such a young squad the future is bright for the Titans no matter what happens in the coming months.