After a somewhat dominating win over Cal Sate Los Angeles in the teams’ first meeting of the season, San Francisco State was shorthanded on Jan. 31, when they hosted the Golden Eagles. Without junior guard Brian Nebo (hamstring) and sophomore backup point guard Mike Diaz (concussion), the Gators, thin on the perimeter, fell behind by 11 points as Cal State L.A. opened up on a 9-2 run in the second half.
Then, the third-best defense in the 13-team California Collegiate Athletic Association kicked in. The Gators held the high-pressure, ball-hawking, opportunistic Golden Eagles to 1-of-9 from 3-point range down the stretch, and came back for a 76-74 win.
On Tuesday, San Francisco State will host Cal State L.A. for a third bout, this one in the quarterfinals of the CCAA Tournament. The Gators are still without Nebo, but they do have leading scorer Jiday Ugbaja (13.7 ppg, 10th in CCAA) and will once again be facing an opportunistic team that’s designed to wear opponents out.
“They have a distinctive style of play,” said Gators head coach Vince Inglima. “They’re going to be up and pressuring and trap for 40 minutes. They play super-aggressive. They force 19 turnovers a game. They rotate. They hockey line change — every three minutes, they put a new five in.”
In a bit of symmetry, the last time the Gators hosted at the Don Nasser Family Plaza’s main gym, back in 2017, they also faced the Golden Eagles, blasting them 93-67.
This Tuesday, San Francisco State (18-9, 14-8 in CCAA), seeded fourth in the tournament, has to figure out a game plan good enough to put Cal State L.A. down a third straight time, and eighth straight since 2017.
Cal State L.A. comes in fresh off of a 67-65 comeback win over Stanislaus State, erasing a 15-point deficit on the road to secure its best record (17-11, 13-9 in CCAA) since the 2012-13 season. Double-digit comebacks have been something of a habit for the Golden Eagles this season, in part due to their mercurial style of play. Cal State L.A. has come back from double-digit deficits to win four times, and nearly did so another two.
The Golden Eagles came from 17 down against the PacWest’s Azusa Pacific in November to lose by only two, and came back from down 16 on Nov. 17 against Northwest Nazarene with 5:44 left to get to within one and lose by just three.
Cal State L.A. came back from 22 down with 15:53 to go in regulation to beat Concordia (Ore.) 79-76 on Nov. 16. The Golden Eagles came back from down 11 with 11:51 to go against Cal State San Bernardino to win 72-66 on Nov. 29. They erased a 22-point lead with 14:34 to go against Chico State on Jan. 12 to win 92-90. On Feb. 28, they overcame a 15-point deficit to beat Stanislaus State 67-65.
“They try to keep the pressure ratcheted up,” Inglima said. ” … They’ve had a few of those games where they’re down 15, 10, they force a few turnovers and all of the sudden, they come back and win. But, they’ve got other games where they’re down 10 or 15, and they try to pressure even more, and the lead kind of balloons on them. It’s like West Virginia. It’s basically Bobby Huggins’ defense.”
In the teams’ first meeting, the Gators turned the ball over 18 times (11 of those coming on Golden Eagles steals), but shot a season-best 58.8 percent from the field (including 8-of-15 from 3-point range).
“They were very aggressive, even more so, and I think that led to a lot of our easy baskets, and we shot it really well,” said Inglima. “We finished around the rim, and that helped us maintain the lead the whole time. As they were down, they got more desperate, and we got easier baskets, not that it was an easy game, by any stretch.”
The second game was similar, statistically-speaking, for the Golden Eagles (11 steals, 16 Gators turnovers), but San Francisco State shot 46.88 percent from the field — still good, but not nearly enough to overcome a disciplined Cal State L.A. team that shifted defensive strategies
“In that game, they didn’t trap us as much,” Inglima said. “They still pressured and guarded the ball aggressively, but they didn’t trap us as much, so we didn’t get as many wide-open looks on those breakouts of the traps.”
What the Gators face on Tuesday will likely be more similar to the second game, than the first.
“I’m guessing that they’re going to pull back on the trapping,” Inglima said. “They’re going to try and play us a little bit more straight-up and make us earn more of the baskets, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a little bit more zone out of them, since we struggled so much this last weekend.”
Against the zone of Humboldt State, the Gators went just 26-of-61 from the field.
“Our perimeter has to take care of the ball, be solid,” Inglima said. “There’s always going to be somebody open, but they apply so much pressure, it makes it hard to find that guy sometimes. If we do, we should be in good shape.”
The one thing San Francisco State can hang its hat on is its defense.
The Gators are holding opponents to just 40.4 percent shooting from the field (third in the CCAA) and 33.2 percent from three (fourth in the CCAA). Both of those numbers echo what San Francisco State was able to do defensively the last time it hosted the postseason, when they held opponents to just 39.4 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from beyond the arc.
The big keys for San Francisco State will be controlling the glass and preventing second chance points, and keeping the Golden Eagles out of transition, and if they do get into transition, to contain the ball handler.
“They’re not a terrific shooting team, but if they get second and third chances, they’re going to get it in there eventually,” Inglima said. “We need to take care of the ball and have good offensive possessions, so they don’t get those steal-fast-break-layups … They have some really quick guards. They’ll take a rebound and go coast-to-coast on you.”
Tipoff for Tuesday is scheduled for 7 p.m.