March 10, 2021 

Big West Tournament Day 1

"It's going to be a new opponent, I'm sure our coaches are already on it with film and scouting," Krupa said

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N. 8 UC Riverside Highlanders vs. the No. 9 Cal State Fullerton Titans. Photo credit: Big West Hoops Twitter Account

The Big West Tournament got underway Tuesday afternoon with an opening-round matchup between the No. 8 UC Riverside Highlanders and the No. 9 Cal State Fullerton Titans.

The Titans trailed for most of the game before a strong fourth quarter in which they outscored the Highlanders, 16-9, as they pulled off the come from behind win, 55-51.

Cal State Fullerton was able to clean up their game despite having 28 turnovers, 19 of them in the first half. Titans head coach Jeff Harada felt like the team wasn’t responding to the physicality UC Riverside came out with and he made sure to let his team know at halftime that they needed to match that intensity.

“I think we just buckled down and we took care of it in the second half. We made shots when it counted. We were battling all night, despite 19 turnovers in the first half we were only down seven. We felt good about that,” Harada said. “Second half we challenged them to be better with the ball and to just play a little bit tougher. We felt like they were being a little physical with us and we were backing down, forcing us to turn the ball over. I challenged them and they responded and that’s what it came down to.”

Helping lead the way for the Titans was senior forward Joy Krupa who had a strong game with 16 points on 47 percent shooting from the field, 15 rebounds, four assists, and three steals. Krupa played the entire game and the Titans needed every minute of her performance.

For a team that has battled injuries throughout the season, Krupa has been a beacon of leadership and the engine that has kept the team rolling.

“She [Krupa] got 15 rebounds tonight, I don’t think we win the game if she gets 14. Each one of those mattered,” Harada said. “She’s playing banged up as well, she’s played through injuries, she’s in pain after every game. Just the amount of heart and guts she shows, it’s an inspiration to me and the rest of the team.”

For the UC Riverside Highlanders, the game began to turn when Cal State Fullerton turned up the intensity and started playing with the same level of physicality. Highlanders head coach Nicole Powell believed that was what ultimately decided the game.

“I thought they were the tougher team, they were prepared,” Powell said. “I don’t think this came down to X’s and O’s, it was really about toughness and competing and I think they edged us out in a key place.”

The Highlanders were led by senior guard Keilanei Cooper who had 19 points in the loss. Cooper was one of the lone upperclassmen this season on a team that had a good number of freshmen and sophomores in the regular rotation.

After the game, Cooper was encouraged for the team’s future despite the loss. Tough losses like this can be necessary growing pains for young teams. She echoed Powell’s assessment that the game was lost on physicality and toughness.

“It’s very tough, but at the same time, it’s eye-opening. I think it’s a great experience for our young team to go through this. I believe this is going to help us grow going into next season,” Cooper said. “It comes out of toughness at the end of the day. If you show up to compete, it will really make a difference. I think that over time our team just really needs to learn that and adapt to that.”

Cal State Fullerton moves on to the tournament quarterfinals against the No. 1 seeded UC Davis Aggies. Due to scheduling, the Titans have yet to match up against UC Davis this season. Krupa is looking forward to the matchup and the new challenges the Aggies present.

“It’s going to be a new opponent, I’m sure our coaches are already on it with film and scouting,” Krupa said. “We’re going to dig deep, read it, and try to store it in our brains, and compete.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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