The Long Beach men’s basketball team is hosting a pair of Big West conference opponents when it plays UC Riverside and UC Irvine this weekend in the Walter Pyramid.
The 49ers (12-11, 6-1) will try to contain UC Riverside (10-11, 3-4) junior forward Taylor Johns, who leads the Highlanders with 16.5 points per game. LBSU head coach Dan Monson said Johns will be the best forward they will have faced in conference play.
“He is an explosive athlete with a big motor,” Monson said. “He plays really hard. He’s probably only like 6’4, but the thing that impresses me is he’s relentless. He just keeps coming at you for forty minutes.”
Senior point guard Mike Caffey followed up one of his best performances in last Thursday’s win at Cal State Fullerton with one of his worst in the home win against Hawaii. Caffey said it is always tough to beat Riverside because they play with so much effort.
“They play hard,” Caffey said. “We just have to come in mentally prepared. The starting group has to come out better than we did last game.”
Monson said one of the biggest challenges when playing the Highlanders is matching their toughness. He said the 49ers have been a finesse team, especially in rebounding the ball, and that won’t work against Riverside.
“They’re going to come in here and play very physical,” Monson said. “They’re going to pack it in defensively and dare you to shoot jump shots. We can’t settle for that. That’s what I was pleased about when our bench came in and righted the ship for us. [The bench] was aggressive. Their first five points were from the foul line. The seniors didn’t have a foul shot the first half.”
On Saturday, the 49ers will face Irvine for the second time this season. LBSU won the first matchup 88-82 at Irvine on Jan. 8. Caffey had a game-high 27 points, but Irvine’s senior guard Alex Young nearly matched him with 24 points of his own. Monson said the team will have a different game plan this time around.
“We know how capable [Young] is,” Monson said. “[Sophomore guard] Luke Nelson didn’t play the first time. All of a sudden you have two [players] out there that can score at any time. They have four or five guys who have all scored 20 points or more [in a game]. I think that’s the biggest thing with Irvine. They’re very disciplined and very balanced.”
Senior guard Tyler Lamb has been the team’s most reliable wing defender all season, and he will presumably take on the task of guarding Young. Caffey said it is going to take all their guards to limit the number of quality shots he takes.
“[Young] made a lot of shots [last game],” Caffey said. “But we kind of left him open a lot first game. [We] closed out short, and he got his rhythm going. We have to cover open shots. Just [about] closing out on him and containing him.”
Lamb said the win at Irvine was one of the team’s best wins of the season.
“We were really tested at Irvine,” Lamb said. “We were down I think seven with like two minutes plus minutes left in the game. We lost to Irvine twice last year, so personally for me it feels great to beat them.”
The 49ers will host UC Riverside on Thursday night at 7 p.m. and UC Irvine on Saturday at 4 p.m. in the Walter Pyramid.