This time of the year can be flat-out cruel to regular season champions of projected one-bid leagues, and while the suspense of that title game is fun for college basketball fans it can be anything but for the players involved.
Long Beach State went into tonight’s Big West title game knowing that feeling, as a 14-2 conference record last season went for naught as they lost to UCSB in the title game.
In each of the last two seasons in fact it was the Gauchos who stood between Dan Monson’s program and its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007, and here they were again.
With Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally on the floor, the possibility was real that the 49ers could see a dominant run through the Big West (15-1, 25-8 overall) not result in an NCAA bid.
But the third time proved to be the charm for Long Beach State, who pulled away late to beat the Gauchos 77-64 at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
Senior point guard Casper Ware took over, scoring a game-high 33 points and dishing out five assists to lead the way for the The Beach, who played the conference tournament without key starter Larry Anderson.
Anderson sat out with a sprained knee suffered in their 79-76 loss to Cal State Fullerton in the regular season finale, and with him out the 49ers needed others to raise their level of play in order to reach the Big Dance.
One of those players was wing James Ennis (15 points vs. UCSB), who averaged 13.0 points and 5.8 rebounds per game during the conference tournament.
Even with the likes of Michael Caffey, Eugene Phelps and T.J. Robinson also at Dan Monson’s disposal they do need Anderson back, and the hope is that he’ll be ready to go for the NCAA tournament.
And Long Beach State, whose non-conference schedule (#1 in SOS) more than prepared them for Big West play, certainly won’t be intimidated by whoever they run into.
Projected by many to end up as an 11-seed, the 49ers are poised to be a team many peg as a mid-major more than capable of winning a game (if not more) next week. And it’s safe to say that whoever draws Long Beach State won’t be jumping for joy.