A stepback corner three. A block. A charge. A split pair of clutch free throws. A short last shot.
Taking its only lead of the game with five minutes left, the Long Beach State men’s basketball team sealed its first Big West win of the season late in dramatic fashion against UC Santa Barbara 55-52.
In the 129th meeting of the conference’s longest active rivalry, the Gauchos (12-5, 1-1 Big West) were held 21.7 points below their team average, and to just two field goals in the final 10 minutes.
Despite losing the rebound advantage 35-29, having its top-three scorers in foul trouble and turning the ball over 18 times, the Beach (6-12, 1-1 Big West) dug in for its best defensive showing of the season.
“Defense travels,” Long Beach State assistant coach Senque Carey said. “If we can buy into being the gritty team defensively like we were tonight, I think the sky’s the limit. Our freshmen played big minutes. One thing people don’t understand, we start two sophomores, a couple freshman and a junior. Every game is a learning experience for our guys and for us as a staff.”
Freshman center Joshua Morgan was a defensive stalwart in the paint once again for the Beach, contesting virtually every Gaucho drive. Continuing to cement his place as the Big West’s leading shot-blocker, Morgan rejected two shots to go with seven rebounds and 10 points.
Sophomore guard Chance Hunter led Long Beach with a team-high 16 points, two 3-pointers and five rebounds. Sophomore guard Michael Carter III had 10 points and six assists, but ultimately made some of the game’s deciding plays that didn’t stand out from the stat sheet.
From a pick-six steal and layup to a foul-free closeout on UCSB’s missed game-tying three, Carter III’s activity in crunch time came despite having to sub out for a moment after injuring his ankle.
“I wish this game was on TV and they could’ve seen that Michael Carter III,” Carey said, “with a big-time sprained ankle, begged me to put him back in on the defensive end and [came] up with one of the biggest plays of the year. A charge on one of the best players in the league.”
Dating back to the 2015-16 season, Saturday’s victory marked Long Beach State’s fifth straight win at the Thunderdome.
“We’ll take it,” Carey said. “We’ve played one of the toughest preseason schedules in the country. With a young team, our confidence kind of goes up and down, but it’s something about this thing in the Big West. We want to compete to win a championship, and you gotta win on the road to do it.”
The Beach will return to the Walter Pyramid for its conference home-opener against UC Davis Thursday, Jan. 16, at 7 p.m.