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There’s only a month left in the NCAA men’s basketball regular season and it’s still hard to tell which Long Beach State team you’re going to get.
On Thursday, the Beach lost a late lead at CSU Bakersfield to slip down the Big West standings. But then on Saturday at Walter Pyramid, LBSU bounced back to beat first-place UC San Diego 85-76.
“We had a team that was locked in and followed the game plan about as good as we’ve had here in a couple years,” LBSU coach Dan Monson said. “Thursday was really disappointing, it was a game we had up four points with 40 seconds to go and made some mistakes down the stretch and let a road win get away. Then tonight I’m just really proud of our guys. It was a good team win.”
The biggest difference between those two games was the presence of Marcus Tsohonis. The senior was too sick with the flu to even make the trip to Bakersfield, but came off the bench on Saturday to spark the game-winning run in the second half. Tsohonis scored 13 of his team-high 18 points after halftime while dishing out a team-high six assists and grabbing five rebounds.
“I don’t really think too hard about it, I’ve come off the bench in college before, so it’s coming in and playing with a lot of confidence,” Tsohonis said. “I don’t go in to switch things up, or direct how I’m going to play, I play off feeling.”
Tsohonis was feeling it midway through the second half when he scored seven points as part of a 13-4 run that took a 51-50 LBSU lead to 62-52 with a little over eight minutes to play.
“I know I can get into the flow at any part of the game,” Tsohonis said. “The more you overthink and get into your head that’s when you don’t play your game. I just try to have a clear mind and then go out there and win.”
Tsohonis was one of five LBSU players in double-figures alongside Jadon Jones (16 points, six rebounds, two assists, two blocks), Aboubacar Traore (14 points, seven rebounds, two blocks), Lassina Traore (12 points, eight rebounds, two assists) and AJ George (11 points, four rebounds, two assists).
LBSU (14-9, 6-5) has struggled defensively and has relied on the zone, which didn’t bode well heading into the matchup with UC San Diego (15-8, 9-2) who came into the game as one of the Big West’s top shooting teams from distance. However, the Beach leaned into the skid.
“We said they’re going to have to beat us from 3’s and we’re going to get in the zone, know where they’re shooters are and make them play outside in.,” Monson said. “We had it packed in, and just rebound when they miss them. They’ve got to make them all game to beat us, and they almost did. Our defense and rebounding won that game.”
LBSU out rebounded UCSD 41-28 and pulled down 18 offensive rebounds.
The Tritons went 12/29 from 3-point range but missed their last handful of attempts down the stretch while George and Jones hit key 3-pointers for the Beach in the final minutes.
LBSU led by three with about two minutes left when Tsohonis drove the lane and kicked it out for George to double the lead. After UCSD forward Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones answered with an And-1 finish at the other end, Tsohonis again kicked It out to the open shooter. This time it was Jones and he drilled it from the corner in front of the LBSU bench.
“I didn’t see it go in because I was calling our zone defense,” Monson said. “You can just tell. He’s one of those shooters, when he gets it in his pocket and gets rhythm and steps into it like he got on that one, he’s going to make 90 percent of those.”
Jones was just 5/14 from the field and had missed nine straight attempts at that moment, but never hesitated in the second half when his team needed him on both ends of the floor.
“Make or miss, my team does a great job of just being positive with me,” Jones said. “They believe in me so I believe in myself. It’s just a team.”
“Jadon is playing with an energy level that I haven’t seen in his career,” Monson added.
Jones’ And-1 3-pointer was a huge part of the run that helped LBSU open up a 13-5 lead to start the game. The Beach flustered UCSD with a variety of defensive looks early while starting 5/8 from the field thanks to aggressive play from L. Traore.
The Tritons got back into the game behind the arc as Tyler McGhie (18 points) and Bryce Pope (22 points) found open shots to tie it 22-22.
LBSU used 11 points off six turnovers to rebuild its lead and take a 31-26 advantage into halftime despite a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Tait-Jones. He finished with 20 points.
Pope got loose to start the second half and the Tritons led by seven before hustle plays from A. Traore and Jones spared a 9-2 LBSU run to tie it 46-46 with 13:16 to play.
That’s when Tsohonis took over and scored three of the next four LBSU buckets to give his team the lead for good. The Beach led for over 30 minutes of the game.
“I think our ceiling is higher than anyone else in (Big West) and I keep telling them that,” Monson said. “The team that’s going to the NCAA Tournament is not the team that anybody has right now. It’s going to be who improves the most this last month. We have the best opportunity to do that if we take advantage of it.”
LBSU hosts Cal Poly next Saturday at 4 p.m.