Tuesday night at Walter Pyramid was like living in a Long Beach State men’s basketball time capsule buried a decade ago when the program was riding winning streaks, sitting atop the Big West Conference and packing the gym for every home game.
The Beach used an aggressive run in the second half to beat visiting Cal State Fullerton 71-61 in front of the biggest crowd they’ve had in years. It is the ninth consecutive win for LBSU (13-9, 8-1) and it puts the Beach alone in first place in the Big West. The winning streak is their longest since taking the conference and making the NCAA Tournament in 2012.
“It was a championship caliber game for the Big West,” LBSU coach Dan Monson said. “It was a dog fight. I don’t think either team felt like they played especially well but I thought both teams played really hard.”
“It was electric, for sure,” LBSU senior Jordan Roberts said of the atmosphere. “It somewhat reminded me of the Homecoming game that we’ve been missing the last two seasons. Just to see everybody coming to support us, especially for the new guys to see, they can continue that tradition here.”
Senior guard Colin Slater scored a game-high 19 points for LBSU while Jadon Jones chipped in 15 points and a pair of key steals. Roberts had 13 points, Joel Murray overcame a poor shooting night to score 12 points and Aboubacar Traore pulled down a team-high nine rebounds.
Cal State Fullerton (14-7, 7-2) got 15 points each from guards Jalen Harris and Tray Maddox Jr., but Big West leading scorer E.J. Anosike was held to just eight points and six rebounds while dealing with foul trouble.
The turning point in the game came early in the second half when LBSU went on a 12-0 run by being aggressive on both ends of the floor.
“In the past few games we’ve always played well defensively in the second half and we stepped it up… I’m glad (the crowd was) here to give us that extra push,” Slater said. “Obviously, having our fans here helps a ton. We definitely want to play hard and do things they’d like to see.”
Slater was key on the offensive end during the run, and all three of his 3-pointers came in the second half. The last one was from about five feet behind the arc to put LBSU up 52-47 with six minutes to play.
“I don’t look at the distance, I just gauge how the defender guards,” Slater said. “If they’re not guarding me close it’s because they don’t think I’m in scoring range. But when I feel comfortable I just let it go.”
LBSU got nine consecutive defensive stops during the run, and then stayed aggressive in transition to get easy buckets and free throws. Jones was key to turning the tide when Monson put his team in the press defensively. The first time the Beach went to the press, Jones got a steal.
“He has a mentally and he wears those (Black Nike Air Force 1 shoes) and that means that he’s going to get gritty, he doesn’t care about looking good and these (shoes) can get dirty,” Slater said of Jones. “Every time I see him bring those out I know what day it’s about to be.”
“Jones is a believer in himself so I feel like he brings that energy to the court every time, regardless of how it’s going for him,” Roberts added. “He could shoot one for ten, he’s still going to bring that energy on the defensive end, get deflections, get hyped and we feed off of that.”
Jones also made a pair of massive 3-pointers in the second half to keep LBSU in the lead. Both came from passes out of the paint.
“Our pace and going at people in the second half was really the difference,” Monson said. “We just kept attacking. And we defended them better than they did us in the second half… (The press) made them cautious. All of a sudden they were a different team against that press. They didn’t attack it until we got nine straight stops. It got our offense going. We have to be a team that creates offense off our defense.”
The Beach also solidified the play down low and only gave up one offensive rebound in the second half after giving up 12 in the first half.
It was a one or two possession game in the final minutes, but Fullerton couldn’t take advantage of getting to the free throw line. The Titans are the best free throw shooting team in the Big West, but missed three consecutive front ends of 1-and-1 attempts while shooting in front of a raucous student section that was almost full.
“It was a great environment,” Monson said. “I thought the crowd really helped us. It brought back great memories of this building rocking. People don’t just show up, you have to earn it. This is a very competitive market for things to do. I feel like these guys are earning those people back.”
Roberts put an exclamation point on the proceedings with an acrobatic And-1 reverse layup with about 1:30 to play.
“Jordan Roberts has spent five years in this program to play a game like today,” Monson added. “We’ve got a long way to go in the (Big West) and the tournament is coming up, but this is the beginning of something cool for our guys.”
The intense tone of the game was set early as both defenses created offense. A pair of Traore blocks helped the Beach, but the Titans turned a few steals into easy buckets and led 10-9.
Murray and Joe Hampton scored on back-to-back possessions to put LBSU up 14-11 just after the 12-minute timeout. Harris’ 3-pointer tied the game before Romelle Mansel came off the bench to spark the Beach. He had an And-1 putback and a big block on defense on consecutive possessions.
Harris and Maddox Jr. sparked a 7-0 run that used the Titans lead to 11 points. However, Murray and Jones hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut into the lead.
With less than a minute left until halftime, Slater poked the ball loose and Jones scooped it up. He gave it back to Slater in transition, and the senior found Roberts for an easy layup. CSUF led 33-28 at halftime.
Fullerton led 38-29 when LBSU went on its 12-0 run.
This was also the 400th career victory for Monson that encompasses his 25 years at Gonzaga, Minnesota and LBSU. He has won 230 games at the Beach since arriving in 2007.
“I’m thankful,” Monson said. “You don’t get 400 wins unless people are with you through the thick and the thin. I’m not naive. I know a month ago people were calling my president and my AD asking what’s going on with the men’s basketball program. They haven’t wavered, and I felt that support at the other places too.”
LBSU has a quick turnaround and will fly to second-place Hawaii for a game on Thursday.
“This just makes the Hawaii game that much more important,” Monson said. “This is fun. We wouldn’t have it any other way. To have meaningful games in February is pretty cool.”
“We have to continue to do what we’re doing right now,” Roberts said. “It’s on to the next.”