On Monday night, Cal State-Fullerton defeated UCLA in one of those so-called easy basketball openers that so-called major powers are supposed to easily win. Kind of like Houston's Tuesday night opener against Nicholls State was supposed to be one of the easy games for a so-called major team to win.
And make no doubt about it. The Cougars were fully aware of what happened in Los Angeles on Monday night. And they weren't going to let it happen to them. Which is why, despite trailing 7-0 only 1:13 into the game, they went on to the relatively easy 92-60 victory last night.
"All coaches are concerned about opening games," head coach Tom Penders said after the game. "No matter how many you've been in, no matter who you're playing, all you have to do is look at this past weekend....so it was a good test for us, and I'm very pleased we came out with the win."
Except for the start of both halves, the Cougars dominated this game. They took Nicholls State out of their preferred offense which depended on screens and three-pointers and made them drive to the basket. The Cougars got open look after open look on offense, and though they had trouble converting those shots, they didn't need to worry as newcomers Maurice McNeil and Kirk Van Slyke gobbled up 10 offensive rebounds to keep the ball in Cougar hands.
Aubrey Coleman had a fantastic opening night as he scored 33 points -- his fourth career 30-plus point game -- and even managed to hit a couple of three-pointers, which was a weakness last season.
"We didn't want to happen this year what happened last year [an opening game 65-63 loss to Georgia Southern]..." Coleman said of the game. "After a couple of minutes, I guess everybody started to lock down, because this game really counted...everybody just locked in when they really needed to."
Coleman put part of the blame on the way the Cougars started the game to there being a lot of new players, and to this being the first NCAA games for Van Slyke and McNeil. But he especially liked how those two kept their composure and didn't let missed shots or turnovers get to them mentally.
McNeil admitted afterwards, however, that he was so amped for the game that he was wiped out. "I got tired fast," he said. "I didn't expect to get tired fast. But I was dead. I was dead. But I think I did all right."
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Except for the slow start which caused Penders to burn a timeout -- and Penders admitted that he doesn't like taking early timeouts -- and the early turnovers, the team as a whole did just fine. Kelvin Lewis chipped in for 18 points, going for four-for-four from the behind the three-point line. McNeil vacuumed the boards and showed some nice power moves as he got 14 rebounds and 10 points to open up his NCAA career. Van Slyke didn't have much luck shot-wise -- though he had some nice looks throughout the night -- but he finished with six points, seven rebounds, and four assists.
"I just try to get every rebound," McNeil said. "That's basically how I play. I run the floor and get tip-ins. That's just my game."
So the Cougars did not fall prey to Opening Night jitters this time around and pulled out an easy win. One that saw just about every player on the roster get some playing time. But if you weren't one of the 3,076 in attendance, then you lost your chance to see the team play for awhile as they play Nevada in Reno this weekend, then head out to Alaska for the Great Alaska Shootout. Their next home game will be December 6 when they take on Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in another of those games they should win.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES: Along with this being his fourth career 30-plus point game, this was also the 17th time in Aubrey Coleman's career that he's scored 20-plus points....Kendrick Washington didn't play, but Penders said that was only because he is bringing him along slowly while he recovers from his double shin surgery....Penders did not think his team played a perfect game, but along with liking their effort, he was pleased with their defensive play, especially with the defense of Van Slyke and McNeil who haven't played at this level before. He also thought everybody played good together as a team and that everybody was looking for the open player and making the right passes.