It was a perfect storm for Long Beach State men’s basketball yesterday at UC Santa Barbara in a surprising and impressive 71-55 victory on Big West Conference opening night.
On the home-court advantage front, there was none with Gaucho students still celebrating the holiday vacation. On the game’s style front, a very messy first half kept the game close and gave the 49ers the momentum they needed. And finally on the playmaking front, there was Larry Anderson. The junior guard returned after missing five games with a broken hand and tied a career-high with 25 points to lead Long Beach to the upset win.
“Having Larry back obviously helped,” said head coach Dan Monson, who wasn’t sure if Anderson would play until yesterday. “He gives us a completely different feel, a different swagger.”
Anderson went 9-for-10 from the field and 6-for-7 from the line, but it was his activity and energy that lifted his team and filled the stat box, racking up eight rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal.
Of course, it wasn't just a one-man show for the 49ers (6-8, 1-0) as the entire team stepped up their level of play, and it all started on Christmas day when they practiced until 1am.
"We always practice on Christmas and we really focused on defense," said Monson. "I thought we really measured our progress on defense. It was our goal to keep them under 60, and I was glad we did… I also wanted to get the Arizona State game (a 72-55 loss) out of our system and break down all that film, because they run the same matchup zone as Santa Barbara does."
The Beach moved as a team with great rotation and weak-side help and held the Gauchos to 33% from the field (18-for-54). The 49ers also did a fantastic job on the Big West Conference's two leading scorers, juniors Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally. Anderson and Ware took on the duel threat in the man-to-man set and limited them to 21 points on 6-for-27 shooting. Nunnally was 1-for-11 and Johnson went 5-for-16 after coming into the game averaging nearly 39 points between them.
Both teams came out of the locker room cold and went a combined 1-for-13 in the first five minutes. Long Beach took an 11-9 lead after ten minutes of play with great work in the paint from juniors T.J. Robinson (13 points, six rebounds) and junior Eugene Phelps (12 points, seven rebounds, career-high four assists).
That’s when Anderson checked in off the bench and changed the game. Long Beach nabbed five steals and scored six of the next eight points to take a 15-13 lead on a 3-pointer from Anderson.
Senior Greg Plater (12 points) helped spark an 8-0 run with less than three minutes left in the half to build a 29-20 lead. However, UCSB (6-5, 0-1) rallied and scored the final six points— three on a last-second buzzer beater by Jon Pastorek that looked on replay to come after the red light came on to send it to halftime, 29-26.
Despite the close score, the 49ers felt confident at the break with Anderson’s successful return and the overall defensive effort. “I think it was a combination of things,” said Monson. “It certainly shows (the team’s) respect for Santa Barbara. They knew they couldn't come in here and not be focused. I mean they're juniors now, and they looked like a better team… I made them watch the Big West Championship on the bus on the way up, with the Santa Barbara announcers.”
Both teams stepped up the offense early in the second half with Long Beach scoring 11 of the first 17 points to push their lead to 40-30. Then, Plater and Casper Ware (nine points, six assists) each hit a three pointer to push the lead to 48-38.
Anderson took it from there with three put-back buckets off long misses. Then with about three minutes left, he capped his incredible return to the floor with four straight plays to seal the game.
First, his hard block on Lucas Devenny gave the 49ers possession. On the other end he drew the foul (UCSB’s 7th team foul) and made both free throws. Back on defense, Anderson worked against Johnson and forced him into a bad shot. Ware then dibbled the shot clock down and went to the lane where he found Anderson for the easy lay up, and the foul. When the dust settled, Long Beach was up 67-52 and it never got any closer. The 49ers shot an impressive 58.3 percent (14-for-24) in the second half.
“I told them I'm not proud of them because this is how I expect them to be,” said Monson. “One game doesn't do anything. It's change. Any addict can be clean for one day— change is the thing. It's lifelong. And we still have a long way to go to prove we're an improved defensive team… today they were who we want them to be and we need to expect that out of ourselves every day.”
The first day is Thursday at Cal Poly San Louis Obispo (4-7, 0-0) for the second Big West game of the season at 7pm. Come back to GazettesSports.com for the full report.