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The Road To Cal State Fullerton's First Men's Basketball Championship Goes Through Duke And Its Legendary Coach

Excited fans dressed in orange and blue cheer and wave pom-poms while standing on stadium bleachers.
Titans fans face a difficult road to the National Championship Final.
Cal State Fullerton)
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Cal State Fullerton students and alumni are getting ready for a huge game on Friday.

Following a victory over Cal State Long Beach in the Big West championship last week, the men’s basketball team earned its second NCAA tournament appearance in five years.

But the tournament could be an uphill battle. The Titans will start by facing off against Duke University’s Blue Devils, one of the top teams — and a perennial winner. Fullerton, in contrast, hasn't won a game in the tournament in more than four decades.

Even so, Titans fans are more excited than scared. “Honestly, I think it’s a really cool opportunity for Fullerton,” said Andrew Buelna, a senior majoring in kinesiology. His sister is a cheerleader and will travel to Greenville, South Carolina, for the game, which starts at 4:10 p.m. PT. Buelna will watch at home with the rest of the family. “I think they have a good chance,” he added.

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Michael Ramirez, a third year majoring in mechanical engineering, said he has a lot of respect for Duke. He’d watch the legendary Blue Devils go against any team, he said. “Now that my school’s involved, all the more reason.”

A Devil Of A Competitor

Two other SoCal teams are also in the single-elimination, multi-week tournament. On Thursday night, fourth-seed UCLA squared off against the Akron Zips, winning 57-53. Seventh-seeded USC competes on Friday night, taking on the Miami Hurricanes.

But it's Fullerton that marks the possible end of the road for a storied career.

Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski is in his 42nd and final year with the team. He’s won five national championships as Duke's head coach, with the most recent title in 2015.

Fullerton students are hoping the retirement party starts Friday night.

Katie Nguyen, a second year who is also majoring in kinesiology, was a shooting guard and point guard in high school. Now that she’s in college, she meets up for pick-up games at the campus recreation center.

“I’ll be really, really proud if Fullerton wins,” said Nguyen, who plans to have friends over to watch the game. Her cousin is a student at Duke University, she added, so the rivalry’s become a family affair.

Cal State Fullerton basketball players gather for a photo, dressed in black t-shirts and orange shorts. Two of them hold a blown-up ticket to March Madness.
The men's basketball players celebrate their recent championship win, along with their ticket to March Madness.
(Devyn Billingsley
Cal State Fullerton Athletics)
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Justin Lowe and Reyte Rash, both members of Cal State Fullerton’s track team, expressed pride in their fellow athletes. In their view, getting as far as the men’s basketball team has is already an accomplishment.

“Now, if they win on Friday,” Rash added, laughing, “I’m going to buy so much college merchandise.”

Rebecca Meza graduated from Fullerton in 2007 and now serves as director of communications for alumni engagement. Her team is organizing the official alumni watch party at BIGS, a restaurant just a few blocks from campus.

We're the underdog in this matchup,” she said, “but we're super excited.” The CSUF alumni team spent the bulk of the week gathering giveaways for the event, which, she underscored, is family-friendly and open to all.

For Meza, the chance to see students and colleagues in person still feels special. “After all the time we’ve spent apart, it’s just nice to come back to campus,” she said.

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