The Long Beach State men’s basketball team couldn’t escape the upset bug that infested this year’s Big West Tournament, losing to fifth-seeded Cal State Northridge in the semifinals.
The 49ers (15-17) managed to come back from a deficit as large as 15 points in the first half, but CSUN (17-17) ultimately controlled the game and secured a berth in the finals with flawless free throw shooting down the stretch.
“Obviously so many teams go through this week, and there’s a few of them that cut down the nets and get the glory, but the majority of teams end with a loss here,” head coach Dan Monson said. “Our season ended. It was problematic all year, just being consistent.”
Half an hour after seventh-seeded Cal Poly punched its ticket to the finals with an upset win over No. 1 UC Irvine on Friday, the 49ers took the court against the Matadors at the Honda Center. The game was tight at first, but CSUN point guard Josh Greene got in a groove, hitting all five of his first-half field goal tries and six of seven free throws on his way to 19 first-half points.
“I thought we were engaged in the first five minutes, but once Greene got going, he set a tone in the first half we just never really overcame,” Monson said.
With LBSU down 40-25 with 2:34 remaining in the half it looked as if the 49ers’ Big West title hopes were already running down the drain. LBSU managed to close the gap to 12 points by halftime, still leaving a sizeable difference to overcome after the break.
The 49ers did just that, though, going on a 17-3 run to start the second half and take a 49-47 lead after a 3-pointer by Mike Caffey. LBSU also put the clamp down on Greene, who spent a significant amount of time on the bench with four fouls.
“I’m proud of our guys for coming out in the second half and competing the way they did, but that’s not good enough,” Monson said. “Once we got Greene under control, [Stephan] Hicks took over, and between the two of them it was just too much.”
Even with Greene no longer draining threes, the Matadors’ offense survived thanks to Hicks. The junior guard exploded for 21 points in the second half, with 13 of them coming on free throws.
Free throws proved to be key down the stretch. CSUN eventually regained its lead and expanded it to five with three minutes to go, forcing the 49ers to make the most of every scoring opportunity they had. But misses on the front end of two one-and-ones kept the 49ers from making it a one-possession game.
Meanwhile, CSUN backed up its ranking as the best free-throw shooting team in the nation, making all six of its tries at the charity stripe in the last 30 seconds.
Asked what the secret was to the Matadors’ success at the line, CSUN head coach Reggie Theus joked “if I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
“It’s something we do every day in practice,” Theus said. “These guys thought it was pretty silly at first, but I don’t let them talk in the time that we’re shooting free throws. It’s not social hour. I make the free throw shooting very important because I’m a firm believer that anything in the game, if it’s important to the coaches, it becomes important to the players.”
CSUN’s consistency at the line proved impossible for LBSU to overcome, and seeing a few calls not go the 49ers’ way in the final minutes only added to the frustration. The Matadors sealed their place in the Big West Tournament finals when Greene hit a pair of free throws and gave CSUN an 82-77 lead with two seconds left.
“We were right there, and it became an offensive game,” Monson said. “Our percentages of winning offensive games go down. We just didn’t disrupt them enough.”
Caffey, who finished with a team-leading 19 points, said the 49ers have dealt with inconsistency since preseason.
“[We’ve been] only playing one half like we did today,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been struggling with all year. It bit us in the butt today.”
Barring an unlikely selection in the National Invitational Tournament, College Basketball Invitational or Collegeinsider.com Tournament, LBSU will begin to prepare for the 2014-15 season. Monson said he knew the team would take a step back this year given the dismissals of Keala King and Tony Freeland among others last spring, but that he was confident the program would still take several steps forward as a result of those changes.
“We have everybody but Dan Jennings back, and we have some good high school kids we signed early,” Monson said. “The program is going to be fine. We’re still going to take some steps forward, I’m confident in that.”