Men's Basketball, Men's Sports, Sports

Long Beach looks to upset unbeaten UC Irvine Wednesday

A quarter of the way through its Big West Conference schedule, the Long Beach State men’s basketball team is caught in a moment in which it is most desperate for a win this season.

Sitting at 1-3 tied for last in the nine-program conference (6-14 overall), the Beach is in the midst of a two-game skid. To add salt to the wound, both losses come from two previously conference winless teams at the Walter Pyramid.

The 66-62 defeat to Cal State Fullerton on Jan. 18 was especially tough for the Beach, as turnover issues and double-digit scoring runs by the Titans resulted in another last-minute heartbreaker.

After the loss Saturday, junior guard Colin Slater said the team feels it’s better than what its record shows.

“After we take tough losses, we’re devastated because we feel like we shouldn’t lose games,” Slater said. “We’re figuring it out. We’re trying to put the pieces to the puzzle together.”

With 12 games left in the season, time is ticking for the Beach to sort out its errors.

“I think they’re gonna bounce back and learn,” head coach Dan Monson said, “but we have a tough task ahead of us because we got the best team in the league coming in here on Wednesday, and then all of a sudden three of our eight home games are done. We gotta salvage one of them.”

Originally picked in the preseason media poll to repeat as the regular season kings of the Big West, UC Irvine has been nothing short of its lofty expectations in January. After collecting three statement victories over Hawai’i, CSUF and UC Riverside, the Anteaters remain the lone unbeaten team in the conference.

UCI will step into the Pyramid riding a 14-game conference road game win streak that’s lasted over two years (a 70-58 loss at the Thunderdome against UC Santa Barbara on Jan. 20, 2018).

Additionally, Irvine boasts an impressive 19-game conference winning streak spanning back to January 2019. 

The last Big West team to beat the Anteaters?

Long Beach State at the Bren Events Center 80-70. The Beach has also been the only team in this stretch to stay within 10 points of UCI at the end of a game (a 75-67 semifinal loss during last year’s Big West Tournament).

Monson and his coaching staff have easily been the closest to stopping Irvine. Part of that is their unwavering confidence in their own abilities.

“As a coach, saying you have nothing left up your sleeve is crazy,” Monson said. “Every day, you’re learning about your team. Every day, you’re looking for new things and yet, not knee-jerk [moves]. … You gotta stay convicted in your beliefs and understand that you got 32 years of doing this. You know what works and you gotta believe in yourself just like you ask your players to.”

Pinpointing Irvine’s reason for success is a tall order, but the factor that stands out is the continuity of its team and system. 

At the nose helm of the Anteaters is three-time Big West Coach of the Year Russell Turner, who became the school’s all-time winningest coach this season and is looking to pick up his 200th career victory.

Turner’s squad, which has no player in for more than an average of 29 minutes, includes three all-Big West senior starters in Evan Leonard, Tommy Rutherford and Eyassu Worku. The trio also combines to be the first three active 1,000+ career scoring Anteaters to suit up on the same roster.

UCI’s most lethal scoring threat comes off the bench, however. Redshirt sophomore Collin Welp leads Irvine with 14.4 ppg, and is the fourth-best rebounder (6.6 rpg) while holding the title of most accurate three-point shooter in the Big West (49.1%).

With the Anteaters leading the Big West in rebounds, assists and the least amount of turnovers, as well as holding opponents to less than 35% shooting, Long Beach will have to play exceptionally well to pull off the upset. 

“We have a lot of guys that come from a certain background where all we do is fight,” Slater said. “We [had] to fight to get here. We have to fight to just keep going. We’re fighters, and that’s what we’re gonna do. I know that for a fact.”

Long Beach will host UC Irvine at the Walter Pyramid on Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 7 p.m.

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