Playing on the road against their third Top 25 opponent in the last month, the 49ers showed a never-say-die attitude that’s becoming a trademark and fell just short of No. 13 Kansas, 88-80, on Tuesday night at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
“I don’t fault the effort, but there’s a difference between playing hard and well,” said Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson on the phone after the game. “We had (Kansas) uncomfortable and we were right there, but then again, we weren’t.”
Kansas jumped out to a 19-point lead in the first half only to have T.J. Robinson and Long Beach State claw its way back and get within five points with three minutes left to play, and four points with 42 seconds remaining. However, the Jayhawks made eight of their last nine free throw attempts while the 49ers missed eight free throws in the second half and only made one of their final four field goal attempts.
LBSU junior James Ennis put the team on his back in the second half with 16 points (4-of-5 from three), six steals, four rebounds and two assists after Robinson was the center of the offense in the first half with a team-high 19 points (16 in first half) and seven rebounds. That plus 15 steals still wasn’t enough to earn the 49ers their second major upset of the young season, and the reasons why were all too familiar.
Turnovers, free throws and depth have been three of the biggest problems for Long Beach State over last four seasons, however, through it all there’s been one constant: This group of 49ers will never stop fighting.
The 49ers started the game with three turnovers on their first five possessions, allowing the Jayhawks to jump out to a 16-4 lead on near flawless play from forward Thomas Robinson. The 6’9” 237 pound senior scored eight of his teams’ first 14 points, finishing the night with 26 points (10-of-14) and 11 rebounds. Monson ran his own Robinson, Eugene Phelps and Dervisevic at the Kansas star— fronting him held Robinson scoreless for the first nine minutes of the second half— but when Dervisevic fouled out with three minutes left, there weren’t enough bodies to stop Robinson and his 7’0” teammate Jeff Withey, who finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds.
"We made Robinson take those shots from distance," said Monson of forcing the big Jayhawk out of the paint. "But he made them. In games like this you kind of have to pick your poison, and he made us pay."
LBSU used a 9-0 run off two steals by Larry Anderson (14 pts, 7 ast, 3 stl) to cut the lead to 10, where it stayed for much of the second half after Casper Ware (16 pts,1 sat, 4 stl) nailed two three pointers at the end of the first half.
But as if a reminder of what's held this team back recently, the 49ers were 28-of-37 from the free throw line. More importantly, LBSU earned the bonus with more than 10 minutes left in a six-point game, but missed the front end on the next three trips to the charity stripe.
In other words the 49ers left at least six points on the floor, and when they needed to make plays late, this group of experienced seniors were, "making mistakes they made four years ago,” said Monson. “Taking shots they shouldn’t have taken down the stretch… we need to play for each other better because 12 assists on 80 points isn’t good enough.”
On Saturday the 49ers will travel to No. 5 North Carolina, and Monson says, “This group has played in major arenas around American. We’ve been through the grind and if we can play to our ability, people will need to have a target on us, not vice versa… I like this team, but we need to get better. If we do, a win on a neutral floor in March is attainable.”