LBSU Basketball
Long Beach State

Long Beach State Men’s Basketball Ready For Big West Tournament

The regular season was a roller coaster for Long Beach State men’s basketball, and it ended on its highest peak.

“It’s been a frustrating season for everyone,” LBSU coach Dan Monson said. “But last week was our best week of the year, and it’s the best time for it.”

LBSU (15-17, 9-7) upset UC Santa Barbara on the road last Thursday with Deishuan Booker’s buzzer-beating layup, and then two nights later Gabe Levin led the 49ers to an entertaining 77-59 win over UC Riverside at Walter Pyramid.

The victories earned LBSU the No. 5 seed for the Big West Conference Tournament this week at Honda Center. The 49ers face Cal State Fullerton at 2:30 p.m. today, Thursday, in the quarterfinal round.

“We’re excited, but it’s another level of competitivness,” Levin said of the tournament. “Everyone is going to give you their best shot no matter what. But we’re trending in the right direction at the right time, so I’m very confident in this group.”

Last Thursday, LBSU delivered one of its most complete performances of the season to knock off UC Santa Barbara 70-69. After a free throw gave the Gauchos a one-point lead with 6.8 seconds to play, Booker dribbled the length of the floor and hit a layup as the buzzer sounded for his career-high 20th point of the night.

“When you come off of a win like that, you hope to catch momentum,” Monson said. “It takes a spark to start a fire, and I was a fire in our locker room after that game. We’ve got a hop in our step that we haven’t had all year.”

On Saturday, after senior night celebrations in front of 2,930 fans, Levin led LBSU to a convincing 77-59 win over UC Riverside.

“I’m so thankful and grateful for all of the support I’ve gotten here,” Levin said. “The ball just moved to the open guy tonight and that’s how we should play. It’s a fun way to play.”

Levin scored a team-high 17 points. Last month, he become the 12th LBSU player to score 1,000 points and grab 500 rebounds. Booker recorded his third double-double of the season with 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

“The coaches have been riding me hard all year, and the stuff they’ve been riding me on is starting to make sense, so I can play with a little more swag,” Booker said.

Bryan Alberts helped the 49ers build an early lead on his way to 15 points, and Temidayo Yussuf helped the 49ers outscore UCR 15-0 on second-chance points. He finished with 10 points and six rebounds.

LBSU started the game with six consecutive defensive stops and never trailed. The 49ers led by as many as 24 points while shooting 46.8% from the floor, and 42.1% (8-for-19) from 3-point range. They also forced 18 turnovers.

The semifinals are scheduled for Friday night, and the championship is Saturday. The winner between LBSU and CSUF will likely play regular-season champion UC Davis. The Aggies (21-9, 12-4) captured three of the four primary yearly awards this week. Point guard TJ Shorts is the first individual in Big West history to earn both the Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year award in the same season. Jim Les won Coach of the Year. UC Davis came back to beat LBSU 105-104 in double overtime in early February.

We got a chance to sit down with Monson before he and his team prepare for the weekend at Honda Center.

Question: That was one of the most entertaining senior night’s we’ve ever seen.

Coach Dan Monson: Wasn’t it great to see (Gabe Levin) show some emotion? Gabe is always so stoic. You’re always wondering what Gabe’s thinking. But on Saturday, you knew. He was cherishing and loving every minute of it. He enjoyed having his family there, and really soaking it up with his teammates.

Q: And he wasn’t the only senior to make some highlight plays. Barry Ogalue had one of the nicest drives down the baseline we’ve seen this season.

CDM: Barry’s got moves, you just don’t know when they’re going to happen. He’s very offensively talented, especially around the basket. It’s just getting him to those situations where he can operate.

Q: Do you like being a conference tournament underdog?

CDM: It is kind of fun not to be the hunted. There’s been a lot of years where all of the pressure was on us. You could really feel that, and it wasn’t a fun week. You want to be the hunted because that means you’re the best team. But it’s nice to come in from a different angle. Maybe being the hunter will get us some more success.

Q: What must you do to survive and advance this weekend?

CDM: We have to get better defensively. Last week we played well because we defended well. It has to start from the inside out. We’ve got to defend the paint better.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge defensively?

CDM: We’ve had the luxury of having Casper Ware to Mike Caffey to Justin Bibbins where we didn’t have to worry about controlling the ball. Those three guys were as good as anybody in the country at keeping the ball in front of them, stopping the break, and controlling the possession. We haven’t had that luxury this year, and it’s shown. Too many point guards have been able to get into the paint against us, and that’s when all heck breaks loose.

Q: Do you watch a lot of video from your games against your first-round tournament opponent during the regular season?

CDM: Yes. I watched the most recent Fullerton game about an hour ago.

Q: What do you see?

CDM: It’s not a great matchup for us. (Allan) can go for 30 or 40 points on good, solid defenders. But we’ve done some good things against (Fullerton) and we kept them to 27 points in the first half of both of those games we played. It’s just sustaining it when they get more aggressive as the game goes on.

Q: The second half has been a concern all season, right?

CDM: We’ve only held one conference opponent to less points in the second half, and that was at Northridge. For us to win this tournament, that’s probably the number one key. We’ve got to be able to come out in the second half and sustain our defensive principles and game plan.

Q: You’ve seen your share of conference tournaments. What does it take to win three games in three nights?

CDM: It takes swagger and comfort. A team that gets into a flow and staying there as long as possible. And it takes an X-factor. Although Casper Ware carried us (in 2012), Peter Papageorge won us that tournament. He had about six points all season, then Larry Anderson got hurt, and Papageorge came in and hit a couple of big threes when we were struggling. He played more minutes in the tournament than he did all season. We need that.

JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.