ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Cal State Northridge put all the distractions of a tumultuous regular season aside, and walked off the court Big West champions.
Rodrique Mels had 23 points, seven rebounds and three steals to lead the Matadors into the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years with a 71-66 overtime victory over Pacific in the Big West tournament championship Saturday night.
"We have a saying," coach Bobby Braswell said. "Talent may get you to the top ..."
His players, standing behind him, then responded together: "But it takes character to keep you there."
In January, leading scorer Deon Tresvant and Braswell's son were arrested on suspicion of stealing $6,600 from an electronics store. Both players were suspended.
Then in February, starting point guard Josh Jenkins suffered internal injuries in a car accident that ended his season. Jenkins led the conference in assists at the time.
"Our definition of character is the ability to meet the demands of reality," Braswell said. "These guys showed the ability to meet the reality they were faced with."
Mark Hill tied his career high with 15 points and added six assists and five rebounds for the top-seeded Matadors (17-13), who won their first Big West tournament title and qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001, when they won the Big Sky tournament.
Northridge's Tremaine Townsend grabbed 12 rebounds, while Mels was selected the tournament's most valuable player.
Mels, the tournament's most valuable player, said he was motivated by comments from Pacific's Michael Kirby.
"The point guard said they were the best team in the conference," Mels said. "That was big motivation for me. We proved that we are the best team tonight."
"They set a great tempo," Pacific coach Bob Thomason said of the Matadors. "They created pressure. They went kamikaze -- got into you and got physical."
With the score tied at 64 in overtime, Rob Haynes made a bank shot with 3:09 left and Mels hit a 3-pointer to give Northridge a 69-64 lead with 1:29 remaining.
Kirby responded with a driving layin with 47.3 seconds left, but missed a 3-pointer that would have tied it with 22 seconds to go. Hill then increased the margin to five points by making two free throws with 14.8 seconds left.
Northridge built an 18-point lead in the first 10 minutes, but Kirby made two free throws to force a 61-61 tie with 5.4 seconds left in regulation.