It sure wasn't a game for scoring enthusiasts. Long Beach State and UC Irvine laid enough bricks on Thursday night to build a new Pyramid, tear it down and build another one with extra space for additional seating.
On the opening night of the Big West Conference schedule, the 49ers shot 17-54 from the field for a 31.5% average, more than eight percentage points below their season average, and the Anteaters shot 17-50 from the floor for 34.0%, a whopping fifteen points below theirs.
That was enough, though, to barely outlast Long Beach by a 46-44 score after freshman 49er guard Travis Hammonds couldn't get up a shot before the final buzzer. A favorite for the conference title this year, Irvine moves to 1-0 in Big West play (10-7 overall) while Long Beach falls to 0-1 (4-11 overall).
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“I think you saw the product of a team that didn't practice well all week and couldn't get shots to fall,” said Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson. “We need to practice better. These guys can shoot, they can make baskets. It becomes a confidence thing.”
Irvine senior guard Chris McNealy scored a game high 12 points and sophomore backcourt mate Alex Young added 11 to pace the Anteaters. Leading scorer Will Davis II was held to six points on 3-7 shooting and the 49ers also forced 15 turnovers, using a 2-3 zone most of the night to neutralize Davis II inside.
For the 49ers, Hammonds led the team with 12 points on 6-9 shooting, for a new career high in his first collegiate start. Junior guard Tyler Lamb added 11 points on 3-10 shooting, and leading scorer Mike Caffey scored just 2 points on 0-8 from the field.
“We had a great defensive day,” said Caffey. “Our goal is to hold teams under 60 and we got that goal today, but like you guys saw, it was our groove on offense. We couldn't get into that.”
Long Beach actually jumped out to a 9-5 lead, on the strength of five reserves who started the game. Monson said that they outplayed the regular starters during practice and earned the honor, and they backed it up with energy and hustle that handed the 49ers an early advantage. Along with Hammonds, the starters included guards McKay LaSalle, Anson Moye and Javion Watson, and forward Christian Griggs-Williams. After seven minutes in the game, only Hammonds and LaSalle would see action again. Still, Monson said the impact from that first sequence had a lasting effect.
“I really liked out effort today, in competing when you’re frustrated and shots aren’t going in,” he said. “[The starters] did play at game pace and they came out and didn't have a problem. I knew they weren't also going to be able to sustain that but they set a great tone that carried throughout the game.”
Irvine recovered as the first half went on, and Long Beach State went into the half with a 24-23 lead. As the second half began, the 49ers began to struggle mightily to score against a defense sporting 7’6” freshman center Mamadou Ndiaye in the middle of the paint. Ndiaye scored four points on two emphatic dunks, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked 4 shots – though he altered countless more and allowed the Anteaters to place major pressure on the perimeter. It equaled disaster for Long Beach.
The 49ers missed their first six shots of the half and did not score a field goal until Hammonds hit a jump shot at the 15:00 mark. By then, Irvine had already gone on a 9-1 run and would lead by as many as 12 points minutes later.
“I don't think I've ever seen anybody influence a game more than [Ndiaye] did and only score four points,” said Monson. “He even altered some when he wasn't in the game.”
Long Beach fought back and cut the deficit to seven points with 5:15 remaining, when Monson made a key substitution. He opted to sit 49er veteran forwards Dan Jennings and Kris Gulley, in favor of Hammonds and fellow new transfer David Samuels.
“I was looking for offense and activity,” said Monson. “I thought Travis gave us great activity. This team needs that toughness, that quote-unquote ‘dog’ and he gave us that. I’d rather a guy not know where he’s going but at least he’s going.”
Hammonds immediately flashed to the high post, drawing Ndiaye with him, and hit forward A.J. Spencer on a baseline cut for a layup and foul. Soon after, lamb made two free throws and then Hammonds again came to the free-throw line for a turnaround jumper to make it a one-point game with 2:44 to play.
Ndiaye and Hammonds traded baskets, and Long Beach had a chance to take the lead in the closing seconds. Caffey raced down the court before Irvine had a chance to set up, but couldn’t convert at the hoop. Long Beach fouled and Irvine forward Mike Best, a 91.7% free-throw shooter on the season, made the first and missed the second.
With 0:09.4 remaining, Long Beach fumbled the defensive rebound and Caffey again pushed to find a shot to tie or win the game. Two defenders met him above the three-point line and he found Hammonds on the wing, but he was unable to get off a shot before the final buzzer sounded. The loss ended a 26-game home Big West winning streak for the 49ers, dating back to the 2011-12 season.
“It felt good to help my team out in the best way I can,” said Hammonds. “I go hard every chance I get. That’s just what I do, I sacrifice my body for the team and do whatever I can to try to win.”
Hammonds and Caffey both said that they were encouraged by some aspects, but are disappointed by the loss and need to pull even in the Big West standings as quickly as possible – preferably this Saturday against UC Davis (0-1, 5-11).
“I feel like we can play [Davis] man and try to get steals, and our momentum going early instead of the second half like today,” said Caffey.