NCAA Notebook: Cal State Northridge, like Notre Dame, galvanized by adversity

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame and Cal State Northridge are separated by 2,117 miles — and by worlds when it comes to women’s basketball tradition. But on at least one count, the Matadors can relate to and even empathize with the Irish.

CSUN — as the Los Angeles-area university prefers to be known — has sustained season-ending knee injuries to two key players of its own since last summer, and has navigated a couple of shorter-term setbacks as well, heading into Friday evening’s NCAA Tournament first-round matchup against Notre Dame at Purcell Pavilion.

On the injury chart, like many others, the top-seeded Irish (29-3) do appear to have the 16th-seeded Matadors (19-15) decidedly beaten — four ND players out for the season with well-documented knee injuries to go with assorted sprains at various times and a busted nose — but it’s a compilation neither side ever wanted to win.

On the other hand, it’s a compilation that has steeled the resolve of the Matadors, similar to what’s happened for Notre Dame by the accounts of Irish players over the last couple months.

“It was a roller coaster ride, because we have young guards,” CSUN coach Jason Flowers said Thursday afternoon of his team’s season, “but everything happens for a reason.

“Our kids have continued to work. It’s a credit to them in who they are as young people, and as a result, they’ve gotten better. Last week was the culmination of them improving throughout the year.”

Specifically, last week was a surprising, automatic bid-grabbing run through the Big West Tourney as the Matadors swept four games in five days after finishing at .500 in the league during the regular season.

CSUN lost one returning starter at guard over the summer when junior Cheyenne Allen suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee, then lost an even more established starting guard 10 games into the season when senior Serafina Maulupe sustained that same injury.

Maulupe, who played at Virginia Tech as a freshman before transferring to CSUN, has already been awarded a sixth year by the NCAA in which to complete her college eligibility, according to a school official. She was averaging 11.7 points and 3.1 assists this season, after averaging 13.5 points a year ago.

“Coming into the season, she was our best perimeter player, was the unchallenged leader of the group, well-respected by her teammates,” Flowers said. “That (injury) was a shock to the group, just because of how strong she is physically, emotionally. … It took some time for them to adjust to that, but she did an outstanding job of staying connected with the group and still serving as a source of inspiration and motivation for our players.”

The Matadors, who are in their third-ever NCAA Tourney, are looking for their first-ever win.

The Irish, who are in their 23rd straight NCAA Tourney, will be seeking their 57th win.

Big West's best

CSUN will be led into Friday’s contest by two-time reigning Big West Player of the Year Channon Fluker, a 6-foot-4 junior post averaging 18.8 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.

She’s complemented inside by 6-2 senior Tessa Boagni, a native of New Zealand who was chosen Big West Tourney MVP after averaging 19.3 points and 8.5 boards over last week’s four games.

“Their post play is phenomenal,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Thursday. “They really like to throw the ball inside. … (Fluker is) somebody that can really change the game at both ends of the floor.”

Fluker was the only player named from a mid-major program when 40 individuals were selected to compete in Colorado Springs last summer for spots on the U23 National Team that later went to Tokyo.

Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale was also chosen to try out.

She made the 12-member team, while Fluker did not.

“I didn’t get to know her that well, but I did get to be around her a little while, and she just works hard,” Fluker said Thursday of her five days with Ogunbowale. “Her work ethic, she’s a great player and has great energy about her, so it was good to be around her out there.”

Not looking back

Irish junior forward Jessica Shepard will be making her first-ever NCAA Tourney appearance in Friday’s game after spending the first two seasons of her college career at Nebraska.

“It’s definitely not an opportunity I take lightly. It’s not something I take for granted,” Shepard said Thursday.

The Fremont, Neb., product is averaging 15.0 points, second only to Ogunbowale’s 20.2 for the Irish, and a team-leading 7.9 rebounds.

A year ago as a sophomore, Shepard was easily the Cornhuskers’ top player statistically at 18.6 points and 9.8 rebounds, but she was on a youth-heavy team that finished just 7-22 overall, 3-13 in the Big Ten.

This season, the Huskers have made one of the most head-turning turnarounds in the country, going 21-10 overall, 11-5 in the Big Ten and earning the program’s first NCAA Tourney bid since 2015.

“I’m just focused on Notre Dame,” Shepard said of Nebraska making the field as a No. 10 seed in the Kansas City Regional. “This is my school now, so that’s what I’m focused on. It’s great for them for making the tournament, no hard feelings there. I mean, that’s my home school, so I’m happy for them, but for me, it’s all Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard, front, is fouled by Louisville's Myisha Hines-Allen, back, during the championship of the women's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., on March 4. (AP Photo/CHUCK BURTON)