David never stood a chance against Goliath in the Walter Pyramid on Saturday.
Despite shooting well from the field and cutting their deficit to just five points late in the game, the Division II Hawaii-Pacific Sea Warriors couldn’t hang with the Long Beach State 49ers. The home team escaped with a 71-59 win in their season opening Homecoming game, making up for inexperience and sometimes sloppy play with speed and brute force.
Otherwise known as: Mike Caffey and Dan Jennings.
Junior point guard Caffey (pictured) appears to have made the transition over the summer from facilitator to dynamic scorer, using a wide variety of lightning-quick moves with grace and fluidity he simply didn’t have last season.
He shot 10-22 from the field and 3-8 from three to score a career high 27 points, including a one-handed tomahawk dunk on a fast break that brought the packed crowd to its feet. Caffey also added nine rebounds, four assists and four steals.
Senior power forward Jennings also debuted a new game on Saturday. This is the slimmer, quicker, ripped Beastmode version of the rebounding specialist that was second on the team in boards last season. Against Hawaii-Pacific, Jennings pulled down a career high 17 rebounds, often in ferocious fashion. His offensive game remains limited, but Jennings scored 10 points on 5-9 shooting, and his moves are more decisive and athletic – if not polished.
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This is clearly Caffey’s and Jennings’ team, and the 49ers will go as far as those two can take them. The other ten players Long Beach State played on Saturday shot 9-38 from the field in a game that obviously featured plenty of first-game jitters. Finding consistent scoring from other players will obviously be key, as adding another weapon will clear the lane for Caffey and keep teams from collapsing on Jennings.
After game one, it appears the third option might be David Samuels, a 6’7” junior college transfer and scored 11 points – the only other 49er in double figures – on 2-5 shooting and 7-10 free throws. He also grabbed 8 rebounds. Samuels moves extremely well without the basketball, looking for cutting lanes and setting screens for teammates. His style could infuse the 49er offense, that sometimes grows stagnant, with consistent motion.
Senior Kris Gulley and junior transfer McKay LaSalle rounded out the starters, though each will need to rapidly improve to reach their potential on the team. Gulley seems the best fit for the third scoring option, a sharp-shooting 6’7” wing with athleticism. In the second half he skied for a rebound and drove coast-to-coast for a gliding layup. It was his only basket of the game, however, as Gulley scored just 3 points on 1-9 shooting and 0-6 from three. Long Beach State could be extremely dangerous if Gulley becomes the third piece of the puzzle, and could earn open looks off Caffey penetration or Jennings kick-outs. Saturday showed that he may not be ready for that role yet, however.
LaSalle shot 2-6 from three for his 6 points in the game, but had trouble staying on the floor. The 6’3” junior college transfer guard fouled out in just 19 minutes, unable to keep up with quicker guards. Head coach Dan Monson explained that new hand check rules make things more difficult for defenders, but first and foremost, the 49ers have inherent defensive issues.
All game long, slow help rotations and collapsing double-teams in the post led to open perimeter shots for Hawaii-Pacific. A strong outside shooting team, the Sea Warrios shot 8-18 from three, including 5-7 from leading scorer Justin Long (20 points). Simple ball movement drew Long Beach State out of defensive position pretty easily – a downfall that superior teams will surely use to their advantage. Perhaps the problem is simply new teammates learning to play with each other, but the 49ers have work to do before their schedule intensifies with dates with Arizona, USC, Creighton and others.
The opener gave Monson the opportunity to give everyone playing time and experiment with different lineups. All twelve eligible players entered the game, with only Caffey playing more than 29 total minutes. Eleven played at least 10.
Redshirt freshman point guard Branford Jones looked strong in his first action since suffering a season-ending leg injury in last year’s opener. He scored 7 points and dished 4 assists in 20 minutes, sometimes relieving Caffey for a break and sometimes playing alongside him. He made the right plays, and some excellent ones: Hitting a wing three-pointer coming off a curl screen before halftime, and stealing a Hawaii-Pacific pass late in the game that essentially sealed the game. Jones will need to shake off some rust, though, shooting just 1-6 and at times looking winded. Still, his presence gives Monson options with how best to use Caffey, and he has proven that he can handle having the ball and the offense in his hands.
Junior transfer A.J. Spencer also added 4 points and 5 rebounds in his 49er debut as a versatile wing who can find holes in the defense, and guard Desmond Ross and forward Christian Griggs-Williams saw action in limited time. Junior forward Nick Shepherd still looks raw, and will need to show more to prove there is substance behind his potential, contributing 2 points and 4 rebounds in 11 minutes.
There is work to be done before Long Beach State can reach their full potential. They have weapons and seemingly renewed team chemistry, but it will take time to polish some of the rough edges. If they do, the 49ers appear ready to back up their predicted fourth-place finish in the Big West – or maybe better.
Before any of that, though, Long Beach faces a hellish schedule. They play at Arizona on Monday, then host Loyola Marymount on Thursday before traveling to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off to face Kansas State and Michigan.