This season has been defined by strong defense and impressive runs for Long Beach State men’s basketball. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how the Beach was defeated by Cal State Fullerton 72-71 in the Big West Conference Tournament championship game on Saturday night at Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nevada.
Everything was going LBSU’s way early as the top seed built a 14-point lead. Fullerton then went on a 17-2 run to end the first half and change the game.
It was very tight down the stretch as these old rivals traded big buckets. The Beach had the ball with about 15 seconds left on the clock and a chance to win but couldn’t get a shot off before time expired.
“Basketball is a game of runs, and if we had the next run it would’ve been a different game… but they had it,” LBSU coach Dan Monson said.
This is the second conference tournament championship for Fullerton since 2018.
LBSU will finish it’s season in the NIT next week. It’s the first postseason for the Beach since 2013.
“Our guys continued to get better and continued to believe in themselves when nobody believed in us,” Monson said. “We came up short but I still wouldn’t trade this team for anybody. Our guys fight, and hopefully we can continue to do that.”
LBSU guards Joel Murray Colin Slater scored 24 and 23 points, respectively, while senior Jordan Roberts chipped in 13 points.
Tournament MVP E.J. Anosike scored a team-high 22 points and pulled down eight rebounds for Fullerton.
After a bit of a hectic start to the 125th meeting between these schools, Roberts and Fullerton’s Damari Milstead traded buckets at both ends. There were only 13 combined points in the first five minutes, but Slater opened up the game with a very confident run of play.
The Big West Player of the Year drained a 3-pointer right in front of the Fullerton bench. The Titans had clearly yelled at Slater to miss it, and when he made it he turned around and stared them down.
LBSU stole the ensuing inbounds pass and gave it back to Slater who drilled another triple from deep. Once again he and the Fullerton bench traded stern looks and expletives. The referees even stopped play to calm everyone down.
Fullerton cut into the lead 15-12 on a 3-pointer from Tray Maddox Jr. and a Vincent Lee dunk. The Titans then went more than three minutes without a point while the Beach defense increased on-ball pressure.
Slater and Murray both caught fire after the eight minute media timeout and pushed the LBSU lead to 14 points until Fullerton changed the game with the 17-2 run to take a 32-31 lead into halftime. The run was full of LBSU turnovers, and Fullerton finished with 30 points off turnovers.
“We were prepared, locked in and in attack mode,” Monson said of the hot start. “Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a team is a fast start because then they kind of relax. The little things aren’t as important and they made us pay.”
There were five made 3-pointers in the first four minutes of the second half as Slater and Murray put the Beach back in front. However, Milstead made his first three attempts from behind the arc and the game was tied 44-44 with 14 minutes to play when Tory San Antonio’s 3-pointer put Fullerton ahead again. The Titans made their first six 3-point attempts of the second half, and finished the night 11-for-20 from behind the arc.
“Statistically they’re the worst 3-point shooting team in the league, if I’m not mistaken,” Monson said. “That’s what teams do in March, you get hot and make shots.”
Murray took a charge on defense and made a pair of jumpers at the other end to put LBSU up 51-50 at the 12 minute timeout.
They continued to trade buckets and the lead down the stretch, and there were nine lead changes in the first 13 minutes of the second half.
Both offenses kind of slowed down at that point until Jalen Harris’ 3-pointer and E.J. Anosike’s thunderous tip-dunk forced LBSU to take a timeout trailing 64-56 with 5:29 left.
Slater drilled a 3-pointer on the play out of the timeout. Then Fullerton committed a turnover, the Beach pulled down an offensive rebound, and Slater was fouled on a jump shot attempt. His free throws cut the lead to 64-61 with 3:44 left.
After the teams traded free throws, Latrell Wrightsell Jr. found Maddox Jr. under the bucket on a press breakdown that put the Titans up 68-63 with about two minutes left.
Murray answered again for LBSU with a tough layup and a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 70-68 with 1:22 left.
LBSU missed a huge opportunity a few plays later. Jones made it a one-point game with a 3-pointer, and the Beach forced a five-second call on the ensuing out of bounds play with about 30 seconds remaining, but LBSU turned the ball over on the next play.
Fullerton missed it’s free throws at the other end, and LBSU had the ball with about 15 seconds left, but couldn’t get a shot off.
“We didn’t have any timeouts and we were scattered,” Monson said. “Fullerton pressured us out, which they did most of the game. They kept us out of the paint. I’m bummed our guys didn’t get a shot off. You have to get a shot up to have an opportunity to continue.”
Monson added that although his team is incredibly disappointed to miss a chance at making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, he knows they’ll be ready for the NIT.
“I’m not going to have to do anything (as a coach) because they have character, they’re winners and next week they’ll be excited to play,” he said. “These guys have never experienced the postseason. They’re going to represent this program as they have all year, I’m positive of that.”
The NIT bracket will be released on Sunday night.