Josh Akognon, the Titan's top scorer this season, injured his finger last week in a game against UC Davis and, after testing it out during shoot-around, determined he was unable to play. Nonetheless, the Titans rallied thanks to a great team effort and strong defense.
Head Coach Bob Burton was proud of his team's ability to overcome the surprising turn of events and rise to the occasion.
"It was a great win for us, especially when you come in and find out your leading scorer's not going to play," Burton said. "Our team really relies a lot on shooting [and] it took a long time for the offense to adjust, but I thought our defense was really good. The defense won the game tonight."
The Titans held the Highlanders to a mere 39 percent shooting, due in part to the imposing presence of the 5-foot-6-inch guard from Santa Cruz, Junior Russell. In addition to pouring in 16 points on the Highlanders, Russell was a menace on the defensive end, taking two steals the length of the floor for scores.
"I thought we played alright without our main scorer, and even though we were at a loss we were still able to come out with a victory," Russell said.
The Titans also got a huge lift from junior Marcio Lassiter, who added a career-high 17 points off the bench, including a 3-point buzzer-beater at the end of the first half. Burton felt the shot gave them the momentum they needed to come out strong in the second half.
"He's capable of doing that. He just needed the opportunity to do it, and tonight he got it," Burton said.
Rather than seeing the injury to Akognon as a handicap, Lassiter saw it as an opportunity.
"I was hungry. I got my opportunity and wanted to prove myself. I'm not here to be just another man on the team," Lassiter said. "Whether [I'm] a starter or the last man off the bench, I just go at it every day and it wasn't any different tonight."
This was the second Titan victory over the Highlanders this season, the first coming in a 30-point blowout at UCR. The victory moves the Titans to 12-6 on the season and 5-2 in Conference play and places them right on the heels of the Big West Conference-leading Cal State Northridge.
Burton is very optimistic about the team's chances this season to take the Big West championship and earn a bid in the NCAA tournament, but continues to take it one game at a time.
"Our goal right now is game to game, winning the next game, playing good defense and keeping the momentum going," Burton said.
The team has been very strong offensively this season, despite the loss of all-time leading scorer Bobby Brown, who graduated last year. The point guard combination of Junior Russell and Marcus Crenshaw has helped fill the void and both are major players in what Burton refers to as "the best offensive team we've had shooting-wise."
"I'm not going to say I'm filling Bobby's shoes because he's a scorer. He led the team in everything," Russell said. "I'm just here to play and to lead the team. I'm trying to fit in and make my way to be like Bobby, but he's way better than me."
No matter what injuries or setbacks the Titans may encounter, there is no question about what the team's goal is for the season: to win the Big West Championship.
"After every day of practice we say, 'championship on three.' We still believe it," Lassiter said. "We can have a guy injured, but we always trust all our teammates. They always come and step it up."
Titan basketball will continue its march for the championship this Thursday when they travel to Long Beach State for their first meeting with the 49ers of the season. Akognon is expected to play, assuming X-rays reveal no broken or fractured bones.
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