MALIBU — From afar, Pepperdine’s Malibu campus has often been seen as it own safe sanctuary. Yet over the past month, the campus was anything but safe as the Woolsey Fire forced the school to shut down for a week. The fires couldn’t have erupted at a more inopportune time, as the school and community was the midst of grieving the death of Aliana Housley, a student who was amongst the 12 dead at the Borderline shooting just days before. For a place centered around community, having to leave campus in the midst of tragedy was devastating.
In order to honor first responders in both tragedies, the Pepperdine Waves hosted First Responder’s Night against the Cal State Northridge Matadors on Monday night. The teams finally able to square off after a long postponement due to Woosley Fires. The game as originally scheduled on Nov. 10 but Pepperdine’s Firestone Fieldhouse was used has a place where students went for shelter as the the Woolsey fire spread to Malibu, traveling over 85,500 acres and destroying over 400 homes.
First-year head coach Lorenzo Romar had to lead his team through a high task of adverse circumstance that most programs never have to conquer. As the school evacuated on Nov. 11, the players scattered to different areas of Los Angeles for shelter. The evacuation was so urgent that many players did not have a chance to pack. With the team scattered and worried, Romar had to prepare his team for an upcoming road trip, he had to deal with this while dealing with evacuation of his own family: Romar had to handle this situation while dealing with evacuation of his own home.
My wife and I would like to thank those that have reached out about our home. We were initially told after we evacuated that our “community was burning”. When we were finally able to get back to our house we were relieved that “by the grace of God” our home had not been harmed.— Lorenzo Romar (@CoachRomar) November 20, 2018
The team would later meet for practice at UCLA before staying at hotel near LAX to prepare for their journey on their long road trip to play a road game at Northern Colorado before playing at the Island of the Bahamas Showcase. With very little resources, coaches spent over one thousand dollars getting players basic necessities such as clothes and toiletries per an earlier article from the Athletic. Despite big and worrisome distractions back home, Pepperdine managed to go 2-2 on their road trip, getting quality wins against Towson and Miami of Ohio.
Pepperdine made their game against CSUN first responders appreciation night. Los Angeles community firefighters, policeman, and their families filled the stands. During warmups, the Waves wore warmup shirts with simple bold letters reading “Thank You” surrounded by the logos of LA County fire, emergency medical, and police departments, plus the #PepperdineStrong hashtag. LA County fire chief had the honors of opening with the game ball. Pepperdine displayed a video board of players sharing their testimonial appreciation for first responders.
Presenting the game ball for #FirstRespondersAppreciationNight is Battalion Chief Doug La Count of the @LACOFD! Thanks to being here tonight, but more importantly, thank you for your countless hours of service and dedication! #CaliforniaStrong #PepperdineStrong pic.twitter.com/cNPxj76IDa— Pepperdine M. Hoops (@PeppBasketball) December 4, 2018
After the first media timeout, the first responders had a chance to be honored in the limelight as they veered in applause when they stood in front of the fans. From the beginning of warm-ups, to the pre game prayer from preaching minister of the University Church of Christ for Campus Ministry Al Sturgeon, and past the opening tip, the spectre of the Woolsey Fire and the Borderline shooting was inescapable.
The story was suppose to be centered around the first matchup between first-year coaches Romar and Cal State Northridge head coach Mark Gottfried. Both served on the staff of UCLA 1995 national championship team under coach Jim Harrick — Pepperdine’s head coach from 1979-88 who now serves as Gottfried’s top assistant. But they knew the rescheduled rematch between their teams resembled something far more important than that.
Nice to see Lorenzo Romar (Pepperdine) and Mark Gottfried (CSUN) back in Los Angeles. They (along with Steve Lavin) were on Jim Harrick’s staff when UCLA won the national championship in 1995. pic.twitter.com/W6wlUgGPWK— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) March 12, 2018
With a game filled with emotional angst, and familiar faces the fans at Firestone Fieldhouse were treated with an entertaining game. Lorenzo Romar’s Pepperdine team came in as a heavy favorite, but Mark Gottfried’s Matadors didn’t play like underdogs in their 90-83 win.
Fans were able to enjoy a fast pace games where both coaches love to play with tempo. It was fast break and transition city, with each team getting their chances to go on formidable runs. The Waves jumped out a 27-19 lead half way through the first thanks to sophomore Colbey Ross’s hot start after hitting his first three shots from deep. It looked like Pepperdine would control the game, but the Matadors would string together a couple late runs to take 44-42 lead at halftime.
In the second half, Mark Gottfried’s young team played its best basketball of the season. It seemed playing against a close friend and recruiting rival helped Gottfried get the most out of his young team. Pepperdine did not have an answer for talented Sengali big man Lamine Diane, who dominated on both ends scoring 29 points and collecting 12 rebounds. Fellow freshmen Darius Brown also added 20 points while shooting a very efficient 8-15 from the field. Reigning Big West Freshman of the Year Terrell Gomez added 13 second half point making big shots down the stretch, preventing the Waves from getting any momentum.
Monday’s road win was a big confidence boost for a team that had lost four out of its last five games. The high ceiling and potential of this young talented Matadors team was apparent at Firestone Fieldhouse on Monday. Mark Gottfried has a very talented team, but the Matadors will have to overcome its inconsistency, lackluster discipline and youth this season.
Pepperdine’s best player Colbey Ross struggled in the second half, shooting 3-9 from the field, and the Waves were an unable to make big shots from their other role players. The talented sophomore still had a solid day scoring 24 points while dishing out 11 assists. Pepperdine struggled on the boards 46-33 and were not able to matchup with the Matadors’ more athletic frontcourt.
Head coach Lorenzo Romar still can take a lot of positive takeaways from this game. Pepperdine could have had the chance to steal the game with timely shooting, as the Waves missed several open jumpers to cut into Matadors lead in the final minutes. The game against CSUN was a litmus test for Romar and his team. The Waves are just one win away from matching their season win total from last season. One can make a strong argument that the Waves are one of the most improved teams in college basketball. Romar is certainly ahead of schedule and Pepperdine should be competitive in what looks to be a challenging West Coast Conference.
Monday night was a much-needed pleasant day for college basketball in Malibu. It was night filled with the gratification, commemoration, joys of familiar faces, good basketball — and, most importantly for college students, free Chik-Fil- A after Lamine Diane airballed two consecutive free throws. The chaos of the last month has taken away from the constant joy and beauty that optimizes Pepperdine and city of Malibu. The Cal State Northridge game was more than just a rescheduled college basketball game; it was about the rebuilding of a community, joyfulness, appreciation, and moving forward. With adversity behind them, Lorenzo Romar can finally move Pepperdine towards its normal routine.
All in all, the Pepperdine-Cal State Northridge game was a reminder that the game of college basketball can help foster community and help us appreciate the things that are most important.
If you are interested in helping the Woolsey Fire Victims here are places that are accepting donations: www.lacfdf.org, https://impact.pepperdine.edu/university/?cfpage=project&project_id=23705&t=1543178941, https://californiavolunteers.ca.gov