Friday night’s Big West semifinal between Long Beach State and UC Irvine was a meeting of the past and present powers of the conference. From 2006 to 2012, Long Beach made five Big West Tourney championship appearances in seven years, winning two. In the seven years since, it’s Irvine that has made five championship appearances. They earned their fifth in a gutty win over Long Beach State on Friday night in the Honda Center, 75-67.
Long Beach coach Dan Monson spoke with open admiration for Irvine coach Russell Turner’s program, and the identity they’ve created for themselves in the last several years.
“They won all the aggressive stats,” said Monson. “They had more points in the paint, more free throws, more rebounds. They beat us.”
Long Beach outplayed Irvine for the first half with relentless defense, keeping the ball from entering into the paint for Irvine and running the Anteaters off the line when they were looking to shoot from deep. Long Beach led for most of the first half and held a 33-27 advantage at halftime, which they maintained until there were 10 minutes left in the contest.
With Long Beach up 46-40, Irvine went on a 19-5 run, forcing Long Beach State turnovers and getting paint penetration off ball screens, something they struggled to do in the first half. From that point on they relied on the Turner Doctrine: bang the ball inside, rebound tough off misses, and wear the opponent down. The Anteaters out rebounded Long Beach 21-11 in the second half, and scored 50 of their 75 points in the paint, including their last nine baskets in the game.
“We were better than them, we outplayed them in the first half, but it doesn’t work that way,” said Monson. “You knew they were going to keep grinding and defending until they broke us. It took them 23 minutes to do it but they wore us down.”
Turner admitted he was confident in his team’s ability to execute its offense down the stretch even as they struggled early.
“Credit to Long Beach, they’re a really difficult matchup for us and I thought they played well,” he said. “I felt like our depth wore them down. I’m really pleased with the poise my team showed when we were down to come back and move ahead.”
The Anteaters were led by Robert Cartwright, a guard who had 16 of his 17 points in the paint, as well as Max Hazzard, who had 14 points. Long Beach State was led by Deishuan Booker’s 21 points and Bryan Alberts’ 12.
Monson said he was impressed by his team’s ability to fight through adversity throughout the tournament and in the season as a whole.
“You do this enough years and you think it gets easier, you think you have magic words to say to them but it just doesn’t get any easier,” he said. “This team lost six games in a row by a total of no points, tough one, two point losses. They got better time and time again and they ended on a seven game win streak. They fought, that’s all you can ask, for guys to compete and represent the school the right way.”
The season ends for Long Beach State with a record of 15-19 and six seniors graduating.
Irvine (29-5) will make its third consecutive Big West finals appearance and becomes the first Big West team to win 29 games since 1991. Wilson alum Mike Wilder is an assistant coach on the team, with Los Alamitos’ Eyassu Worku and Cerritos’ Evan Leonard key contributors. Irvine will face the winner of UCSB and Fullerton in the Big West championship on Saturday in the Honda Center.