March Madness: Cal State Fullerton falls to Duke in the first round


They stood in the long shadow of legend, brave upstarts who hoped to reverse the bluest of blue blood but understood that the odds were against them.

Cal State Fullerton knew all too well what it was like to face those big odds. Few expected the 15th-seeded Titans to even compete in the Big West this season, let alone stand in the way of the No.2-seeded Duke and his legendary coach’s final drive.

When the end finally came on Friday, when Duke KO’d Fullerton with a 78-61 loss, coach Dedrique Taylor wrapped his arms around EJ Anosike and reassured him how far he’d come. The fifth grader had taken a winding road to Southern California, stopping in Sacred Heart and Tennessee.

But by the time she got to Fullerton, Anosike had become the heart of an upstart who kept proving himself on Friday, even in defeat.

“We’ve talked about that moment, believe it or not. We talked about winning a Big West Conference championship. We talked about coming to the NCAA tournament. That was a mission that we both stood on to further validate the work that we both did,” said Taylor. “I just thanked him for giving me the opportunity to be a part of what he did. And I think what he did was downright powerful for our program.”

This will could be felt on Friday, even if it wasn’t fully reflected in the final result. As Duke (29-6) jumped to a 17-4 lead, Fullerton refused to fold and fired back from the field from his three-of-18 start to reduce the lead to six. Time and time again, as the Blue Devils pushed forward, the Titans (21-11) hit back.

That advantage eventually proved too difficult to overcome, with Duke bullying Fullerton with his size and rushing past them in the transition.

“Duke lands the ball,” Taylor said, “and the next thing you know it’s a dunk.”

But there would be no backing down from Fullerton, not until the inevitable was too impossible to ignore.

“Many teams would have given up in difficult times,” said Anosike. “As long as our hearts are still beating, we will continue and try to play to win.”

This challenge was particularly difficult for Anosike on Friday. Along with likely top-five pick Paolo Banchero, the 6-7 forward has struggled to establish himself on offense. He battled Banchero and the rest of Duke’s front for rebounds and got 10.

Anosike was one of four Fullerton players to finish in double figures, but the Big West’s top scorer was limited to just 10 points. Damari Milstead, another transfer who joined Fullerton from San Francisco this season, led at 12.

Her performance impressed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has more national titles (5) than Fullerton tournament appearances (4).

“We beat a good team,” said Krzyzewski. “Dedrique’s team is an old veteran team, champions and known for their defense. They played really hard defensively against us.”

Ultimately, sheer willpower wasn’t enough to defeat a team with three likely NBA lottery picks. But with the loss, there was no question that Fullerton had kept everything on the ground.

“We sacrificed a lot all year to be in this position and to make history,” said Anosike. “We believed. We gave ourselves a chance. We emptied our tank.” March Madness: Cal State Fullerton falls to Duke in the first round

Andrew Schnitker

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