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UCI upset bid denied

Men's Basketball

Top-seeded 49ers use 14-0 second-half run to reverse early deficit, prevail in Big West semifinal.

March 09, 2012|By Barry Faulkner
(Kevin Chang / Daily…)

ANAHEIM — The Long Beach State men's basketball team played North Carolina in the Dean Dome and battled Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse earlier this season. The 49ers also won at then-No, 9-ranked Pitt and lost hard-fought road contests to Louisville and San Diego State.

But for a little more than 26 minutes in a Big West Conference Tournament semifinal against UC Irvine on Friday, no team had tested Coach Dan Monson's hardened veteran cast any more thoroughly than the Anteaters.

"I think we earned their respect tonight," said UCI Coach Russell Turner, whose No. 7-seeded squad duplicated the fast start it used Thursday to upset No. 2-seeded Cal State Fullerton in the quarterfinals, against the top-seeded 49ers at Honda Center.

Long Beach State (24-8), which eliminated UCI in last year's tournament quarterfinals and swept the two regular-season meetings this season, trailed, 9-0 and 11-5, as it opened the game two for 12 from the field.

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But Long Beach State rallied to claim a 68-57 triumph that finalized UCI's first 20-loss season since the 1998-99 campaign.

UCI (12-20), which lost for the 11th time in 14 conference tournament semifinal appearances, lost seven of its final 10 games and extended its NCAA Tournament drought to 35 seasons since it joined the Division I ranks.

But with Thursday's 65-59 victory over Fullerton and Friday's spirited battle with perhaps the conference's most dominant team in recent memory, the Anteaters, one of only nine teams among 338 Division I programs without a senior, earned more respect that that afforded them by the 49ers.

"I believe every guy on our team thought we were going to come here and win tonight and I believe we played like it," Turner said. "We gave ourselves a chance to do that for 25 minutes. But [the 49ers, now 17-1 against Big West foes this season] did what really good teams can do. They turned it on and made some plays and made some big shots, and we turned it over, which has been our nemesis.

"I think we're better than what the average guy perceives a 20-loss team to be. What we did, what we're supposed to do. We got better.

"I think all of our guys know that we've got a chance to compete for this league title. Soon. Now. I'm already focused on next year and I'm hoping every guy in our program is thinking that way."

UCI appeared focused on a second straight upset, as it held a 28-27 edge at halftime.

The third of three Irvine second-half three-pointers with 15:50 left in the game put the Anteaters up, 43-39.

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