Cal State Fullerton coach Bob Burton has been disappointed with his team's play all season long, but the Titans ended the regular season with two road wins that may have provided a shot of confidence going into the Big West Conference tournament.
The Titans had lost five in a row and seven of eight before embarking on a two-game road trip to close out the conference schedule. Perhaps buoyed by the memory of senior guard Devon Peltier's game-winning 3-pointer in a 54-51 victory over Pacific on Dec. 30, the Titans pulled out another dramatic victory over the Tigers on March 3, beating them 82-80 in Stockton, Calif.
Peltier scored 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting to lead five players in double figures for Cal State Fullerton. The Titans shot 53.6 percent from the field and made an eye-popping 11 of 16 (.688) from 3-point range in their most impressive performance since knocking off Big West champion Long Beach State on Jan. 19.
Burton said the Titans planned to attack first-team All-Big West senior forward Sam Willard in the middle. It turned out to be a brilliant strategy, as Willard played only 13 minutes before fouling out midway through the second half. Willard, the leading rebounder in the Big West, picked up two fouls in the first six minutes and his third with 8:22 to play in the first period. Willard was assessed his fourth foul less than two minutes into the second half. He fouled out with 9:08 to play after producing season lows of five points and two rebounds.
The hot shooting also was an encouraging sign for a team that will have to use the long ball to win games in the Big West tournament. The Titans had a season high with 11 3-point field goals in the win over Pacific. Peltier made six of eight, sophomore guard Isiah Umipig made four of six and junior guard Perry Webster made one of two.
The Titans gave their weary coach more reason for renewed optimism in an 87-82 victory over UC Davis on March 5. They shot 47.5 percent from the field and made 12 of 27 (.444) from beyond the arc to establish another season high for made 3-pointers. They also outrebounded the Aggies 35-30, made 19 of 23 free throws and recorded 17 assists on 28 baskets.
The victories over Pacific and UC Davis helped Cal State Fullerton finish sixth in the Big West. They went into the conference tournament as the No. 6 seed to face third-seeded Cal State Northridge in a first-round game March 10. It wasn't the most favorable matchup for the Titans, who lost to the Matadors twice during the regular season, but Burton was relieved to be in the tournament at all after openly wondering whether the team would qualify.
--The Big West Conference tournament will have a new home this season, but the tournament's new format may be of greater significance. The Big West tournament will be held March 10-12 at the Honda Center in Anaheim after 10 years at the Anaheim Convention Center. In recent years, the top four seeds in the Big West tournament have received first-round byes and the first two seeds received second-round byes into the semifinals. There will be no byes this season. Top-seeded Long Beach State will open against No. 8 seed UC Irvine on the first day of the tournament and, like the other seven teams, will have to win three games in three days to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
--Three Cal State Fullerton players earned All-Big West honors. Senior F Jer'Vaughn Johnson received honorable mention, junior F Andre Hardy was the first recipient of the newly minted newcomer of the year award, and freshman G Isiah Umipig was named sixth man of the year.
--Perimeter shooting certainly hasn't been the problem for Cal State Fullerton this season. The Titans were second in the Big West and 75th in the nation in 3-point shooting (.370) through March 8. Only one team in the Big West shot the long ball better than the sixth-place Titans. Oddly enough, it was last-place UC Davis (.378).
--Two Cal State Fullerton players ranked among the Big West Conference leaders in 3-point shooting going into the conference tournament. Senior G Devon Peltier was third (.411) and freshman G Isiah Umipig was seventh (.386).
BY THE NUMBERS: 305th -- Where Cal State Fullerton ranked among 336 Division I teams in scoring defense at the end of the regular season. The Titans were last in the Big West Conference, allowing an average of 75 points per game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The key to the whole game and the reason we won is because Sam Willard didn't play. Our plan was to really go at him, and it worked." -- Cal State Fullerton coach Bob Burton, to the Stockton Record, after Pacific senior F Sam Willard played only 13 minutes, posting season lows of five points and two rebounds, before fouling out on March 3.