They have battled all season for this.
Now they are just two wins away from the NCAA Tournament.
The Long Beach State men’s hoops teams will open Big West Conference Tournament play in the semifinals at the Anaheim Convention Center Friday night.
The No. 2-seeded 49ers will play the highest remaining seed in a game that should tip at approximately 8 p.m. It will be broadcast on ESPNU.
How they got here
After going just 3-13 a year ago in the Big West, an infusion of young freshman talent led The Beach to a red-hot 5-0 start in conference play.
The ‘Niners were paced early by senior Donovan Morris and freshman guard Casper Ware. When Morris missed time with a nagging foot injury, two other freshmen stepped up and played big roles.
Larry Anderson, who was selected Monday as First-Team All-Big West and Freshman of the Year, and honorable mention all-conference choice T.J. Robinson led the way for LBSU through some difficult times.
The 49ers stumbled after the fast start, going just 5-6 the rest of the way in conference play.
Their struggles at home were especially puzzling.
“We have a young team that can’t separate when we need to,” LBSU head coach Dan Monson said.
“We lost our opportunity to win conference when we lost three in a row at home. Seeds six, seven and eight beat us at home,” he said referring to UC Riverside, Cal State Fullerton and UC Davis.
But The Beach weathered the storm, winning tough games against UC Irvine and winning just enough games to earn a No. 2 seed.
“Of any year, I think this is the year the byes are going to help those teams,” said UCI head coach Pat Douglass, whose team was eliminated by UC Davis in the opening round Wednesday night.
Junior guard Stephan Gilling, also an honorable mention all-conference selection, found his shot at some critical spots in games to carry the team.
The return of Morris to the fray late in the season gives the team another wrinkle, but it’s not the same team he left.
“It’s great to have Donovan back,” Monson said, “but he’s going to have to integrate into a new team,” referring to the new team dynamic with so much of a freshman presence.
The biggest issue in the latter portion of the season was consistency, as LBSU has alternated wins and losses in its last 11 games.
A mini two-game run is all they need to dance come Saturday night.
No. 1 Cal State Northridge
The CSUN Matadors will play in the other semifinal game Friday night at 5:30 p.m. They will face the lowest remaining seed and it will be televised on ESPNU.
The circuitous route to a place everyone expected them to be — on top of the Big West standings — has been far from an easy one for the Matadors this season. They have lost top players Deon Tresvant (legal trouble) and Josh Jenkins (car accident) and head coach Bobby Braswell’s son was directly involved in the incident that landed Tresvant in hot water.
But Braswell’s deep and talented team held off Long Beach to grab the Big West regular season title and is a formidable foe this weekend.
“Give them credit for handling adversity, maybe better than any team ever,” UC Santa Barbara head coach Bob Williams said.
The red-and-black are led by senior big man and First-Team All-Big West selection Tremaine Townsend, who is the team’s leading scorer in Tresvant’s absence at 11.1 points per game. He also was the top rebounder in the conference at 8.3 RPG.
The Beach split with CSUN, winning 74-68 at home but losing 95-74 at the Matadome.
No. 3 Pacific
One of the hottest and maybe the most dangerous team in the tournament is the Pacific Tigers.
Winners of five of its last seven games, UOP will meet No. 8 UC Davis tonight in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m.
Senior guards Chad Troyer and Michael Kirby are second and third on the team in scoring (10.8 and 9.5 PPG, respectively) and make more than four 3-pointers per game combined.
Leadership at the guard position is so critical at this time of the year. Down low, Pacific is anchored by forward Bryan LeDuc, who is the team’s leading scorer at 10.9 PPG.
LBSU swept Pacific, winning 74-64 on the road and 81-80 in a double overtime thriller at the Walter Pyramid.
“Long Beach played a great game against us here. They use their athletic ability,” Pacific head coach Bob Thomason said. “When they get it going, they are as good as anybody.”
No. 4 UC Santa Barbara
The UCSB Gauchos will face the Cal State Fullerton Titans in the quarterfinals tonight at approximately 8:30 p.m.
UCSB struggled early on but finished with a flourish thanks to James Nunnally. His 3-pointer at the buzzer last Saturday to beat The Beach vaulted UCSB from the eighth seed all the way into the No. 4 spot.
“That last-second shot was the difference between being seeded fourth and eighth,” Williams said.
Senior Chris Devine is the player to watch for Santa Barbara. The 6-foot-8 senior from Alaska was named to the First-Team All-Big West by averaging 15.5 PPG and 6.5 RPG.
Long Beach split with UCSB, winning 76-64 at the Walter Pyramid and losing 76-75 at the Thunderdome just five days ago.
No. 7 Cal State Fullerton
The Titans came into the tournament losers in four of their last five games before defeating No. 6 UC Riverside, 59-46, in the opening round Wednesday night.
They will face No. 4 UCSB tonight at approximately 8:30 p.m.
Cal State Fullerton boasts the conference’s Player of the Year and First-Team All-Big West selection Josh Akognon, who was the leading scorer at 23.5 PPG — including 20.7 in 16 Big West games.
The Titans have been a thorn in LBSU’s side, splitting a pair of one-point games this season. They defeated the ‘Niners, 61-60, in Long Beach but dropped a 75-74 decision in Fullerton.
“I still think [the 49ers] are young and the best is still to come with them,” CSUF head coach Bob Burton said.
Barring a run to the semifinals by No. 8 UC Davis, the Titans and 49ers wouldn’t be able to meet until the conference championship game Saturday night. LBSU will meet the highest remaining seed in the semifinals.
No. 8 UC Davis
UC Davis floundered at the end of the regular season, losing four of its last five games. However, the Aggies defeated No. 5 UC Irvine, 69-68, in the opening round Wednesday night.
They will face No. 3 Pacific tonight at 6 p.m.
Senior leader and First-Team All-Big West member Vince Oliver averaged 15.5 PPG to go with 81 percent free-throw shooting.
In fact, the Aggies are second in the conference with a 76.3 percent free-throw percentage.
“It’s critical, level of composure and maturity about him that helps with our younger players. [It’s a] level of experience that we rely on,” UCD head coach Gary Stewart said about Oliver.
The Aggies split their two games against The Beach this season.
The Daily Forty-Niner sports staff contributed to this report.