Thursday evening at the Walter Pyramid, the Long Beach State men’s basketball team was trailing UC Santa Barbara by 10 in the middle of the second half. It looked as if the 49ers were headed toward another double-digit loss at the hands of the Gauchos, who had already won the previous meeting by 13.
Five minutes later, with 4:35 remaining on the clock, the 49ers and Gauchos were tied at 60. The difference? Branford Jones.
Jones came off the bench in the second half and had an immediate impact. He made a couple big 3-pointers, hit his free throws and went all-out on 50/50 plays. He also took a couple charges, providing just as much of a lift defensively as he had offensively.
LBSU went on to lose that game, but not because of Jones. UCSB’s Michael Bryson got an offensive rebound and put in a layup during the last second of regulation, giving the Gauchos a 65-64 lead at the buzzer.
Jones is probably good enough to start — and he has, seven times this year — but he’s buried behind Mike Caffey on the depth chart. He might be better used off the bench anyway, as every time he steps on the court, he brings an energetic and all-out style that can be refreshing and motivating in the middle of a game.
“As a coach, it’s really important that when you go to your bench, you trust that you know what you’re going to get and be consistent with that,” Monson said in late January. “[Jones] is going to make open shots, he’s going to make the easy basket … it’s very valuable to have that consistency from a guy coming in.”
Jones is currently having one of his better streaks of the season. He has scored at least nine points in four of his last six games and averaged a little more than 17 minutes per game.
Included in those numbers is an anomaly, as Jones didn’t score any points and only played six minutes in Saturday’s game against Cal Poly. The 49ers didn’t exactly need him, though, as the three-headed monster of Caffey, Tyler Lamb and Dan Jennings took care of the Mustangs in a 74-65 win.
LBSU may not need Jones as much as it did in the UCSB game, but he has provided a consistency off the bench that is hard to find. Also benefiting from Jones’ contributions is Caffey. Last year, when Jones went down in the season opener with a leg injury, Caffey found himself without a qualified backup and had to shoulder a bigger load than most.
This year, Caffey can get a couple minutes of rest without having to worry about the 49ers enduring a meltdown in the middle of the game.
As the season comes to a close, Jones’ presence off the bench will be increasingly more valuable. His consistency and energy will be crucial during the Big West tournament, where having up to three games in three days will test the 49ers’ endurance.
Jones will be ready for that, though — his best performance of the season came during the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, when he scored a combined 30 points in games over ranked foes Michigan and Virginia Commonwealth.