There were more unexpected challenges awaiting Long Beach State men’s basketball in the quarterfinals of the 2021 Air Force Reserve Big West Men’s Basketball Championship, presented by The Hawaiian Islands. Their shortened season full of COVID-19 pauses, injures and changing lineups prepared the Beach to adjust on the fly when going to Las Vegas without top scorer Michael Carter III and after losing starting forward Joe Hampton to injury in the opening minutes against No. 1 UC Santa Barbara on Thursday.
That familiar stroke of bad luck didn’t deter LBSU from playing one if its best games of the season against top-seed UCSB, but ultimately the Beach ran out of March magic and fell 95-87.
“My guys deserve a lot of credit for fighting and persevering through a lot of elements right to the end,” LBSU coach Dan Monson said. “I can’t think of another team in my 34 years (of coaching) that I’m any more proud of than this team. Right down to the end they kept fighting and trying to get better. We just never had enough healthy days (of practice) to really get there.”
The shorthanded Beach battled UCSB despite trailing by as many as 17 points. LBSU cut the lead to four points in the final minutes, but couldn’t get over the hump that UCSB built in the first half.
“Obviously with different players available the looks are different because we all play different,” LBSU senior Colin Slater said. “But at the same time I think in essence we all just want to win, and we all want to put ourselves and each other in better positions to be successful… we were figuring that out as we continued to play in games but we obviously ran out of time.”
Slater was one of five LBSU players in double figures with a team-high 20 points. Fellow senior guard Isaiah Washington filled the stat box with 13 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. Senior Jordan Roberts chipped in 13 points as well, while Jadon Jones and Chance Hunter scored 18 and 16 points, respectively.
UCSB was led by Big West Player of the Year JaQuori McLaughlin and sophomore guard Josh Pierre-Louis, who scored a game-high 24 points. McLaughlin dominated down the stretch on his way to 22 points. UCSB took advantage of tired legs in the second half and ended up making 26 of its 32 free throw attempts.
In stark contrast, LBSU was 9/13 from the charity stripe while getting outrebounded 41-32. The Beach made up for that by hitting 10 of 20 shots from 3-point range. Other than that the game was relatively even statistically.
“Santa Barbara deserved to win the game,” Monson said. “These aren’t excuses, but you practice how you play and we didn’t get enough practices to work on ourselves. We’re probably 70 percent of where we need to be.”
The beginning of this game was marred by the serious injury suffered by Hampton in the opening minutes. That forced Monson to go to his bench and employ a heavy offense-for-defense rotation. Even reserve forward Jeff Yan played a few minutes.
“When Joe Hampton went out our guys were shook, but this is a season of being shook,” Monson said. “I think we’ve had five season-ending injuries so the it was a, ‘Oh, not again’ type thing. But guys came off the bench to show each other they would do it for each other. This team is not going to stop, this program is not going to stop.”
The LBSU defense used a variety of looks to confuse and slow down the UCSB attack. It worked for large stretches of the first half, and the Beach even held them without a field goal for more than four minutes while chipping away at the lead.
Slater, Washington and Hunter made big shots to cut the lead to 28-25 with about 5:30 left in the first half, but Amadou Sow’s And-1 dunk at the other end stopped the 8-0 run and sparked a UCSB run. The Gauchos led 44-35 at halftime.
UCSB maintained its double-digit lead for the majority of the second half, but LBSU refused to give in at both ends of the floor. The Beach forced 14 turnovers and used their transition offense to create quick open looks.
Washington led that change and attacked the bucket with poise as the minutes ticked away. Twice he made it a two-possession game in the final minutes, and his 10th assist of the night on a Hunter layup with 35 seconds to play made it 91-87.
After a timeout, LBSU got into the full court press. Washington went for the steal at half court but made contact with McLaughlin on the play and was whistled for a Flagrant 1 foul that effectively ended the game.
“I won’t comment on officiating but we didn’t lose the game because of that one call,” Monson said. “We took a good swing at (UCSB) though, and it’s too bad (the season is over) because I love coaching this group and getting through all this adversity.”
LBSU (6-12) came in as the No. 9 seed and upset CSUN on Tuesday night in the opening round.