Randy Youngman is a former Page 2 columnist for the Orange County Register.
ANAHEIM – Raise your hand if you actually expected the Long Beach State women’s basketball team, a No. 7 seed with a losing record, to upstage Long Beach’s top-seeded men’s team in Big West Tournament play at Honda Center this week.
No you didn’t. Put your hand down. C’mon, nobody has an imagination that wild.
Not even Nostradamus could have predicted Jody Wynn’s women’s team stealing thunder at tournament time from Dan Monson’s men’s team, which grabbed all the headlines this season by going wire to wire to repeat as Big West regular-season champions while falling one game short of a perfect 16-0 mark in conference play.
Sorry, Dan, but nobody is surprised that your team has advanced to Saturday’s Big West title game (7 p.m., ESPN2) because this is the third year in a row you get a chance to play for the conference’s automatic NCAA berth.
So for at least one day, Jody’s team was the story of the day. By knocking off No. 2 seed Cal State Northridge in Tuesday’s quarterfinals and then upsetting No. 1 seed Cal Poly in Friday’s semifinals, her 49ers (14-17) already have distinguished themselves as the lowest seed to advance to the women’s Big West Tournament title game.
And the Cinderella 49ers can continue to rewrite history if they win Saturday’s title game (2 p.m., Prime Ticket) against No. 6 seed Santa Barbara (16-15), a runaway 84-66 winner over Pacific in Friday’s other semifinal.
Whoever wins, it will be the lowest women’s seed to represent the Big West in the NCAA Tournament.
Why stop now, right, Jody?
“We’ve been saying, ‘Why not us? Why not now?’ “ Wynn said after her 49ers rebounded from an abysmal first half and rallied from a 10-point deficit in the second half to stun Cal Poly, 51-48. “If we continue to believe in each other and have each other’s backs, anything is possible.”
Anything, of course, includes the possibility of gathering her team to watch Sunday’s NCAA Selection Show as the tournament brackets are unveiled. But there is more work to do first.
This is how improbable the Long Beach women’s victory was Friday. Cal Poly won the regular-season title with a 12-4 record, finishing five games ahead of the 49ers (7-9).
Cal Poly led the league in scoring, scoring margin, field-goal percentage, 3-point shooting, free-throw shooting and assists. The Mustangs also featured two-time Big West Player of the Year Kristina Santiago, a one-woman wrecking crew who led the league in scoring (23.4 ppg), rebounding (10.0 ppg) and field-goal percentage (.567).
And two weeks ago, when Long Beach State went to San Luis Obispo to play, the 49ers were being blown out, 68-41, when the game was called with 5:11 left after LBSU freshman guard Bianka Balthazar collapsed on the court and required emergency treatment from paramedics.
Wynn said everyone on the team remembered that day and said “we were well aware” that Santiago had made 26 of her last 36 field-goal attempts going into Friday’s game.
Whatever the motivating factors, Long Beach State’s double-teaming and switching defenses held Cal Poly to 28.1 percent shooting from the field (16 for 57) and 16.7 percent shooting from 3-point range (3 for 18).
Santiago contributed team-high totals of 21 points and 12 rebounds, but she was 7 for 17 from the field and missed two free throws in the final minute when it was a 1-point game.
Long Beach State also had problems finding the basket in the first half, missing 20 of its first 24 field-goal attempts and making only 1 of 11 3-pointers, but Cal Poly led only 19-13 at the intermission because it missed 19 of its 24 shots from the field. Yes, it was that ugly.
Or as Wynn said afterward, “I think we set women’s basketball back about 20 years in the first half. “ But she told her team that it couldn’t get any worse, and the 49ers responded by shooting 50 percent (13 for 26) in the second half while Cal Poly continued to struggle (11 for 33 in the second half).
Sophomore guard Hallie Meneses (16 points) and freshman forward Devin Hudson (10 points, 10 rebounds) led the way as the 49ers overcame a 34-24 deficit in the final 14 minutes.
“We tried to find ways to get Kristina in isolation with back screens,” Cal Poly coach Faith Mimnaugh said after the game. “We didn’t create the movement we wanted and they were able to double-team her with our stagnant sets.”
But it didn’t matter. Long Beach State was a No. 7 seed on a mission that was accomplished.
Groundhog Day: Was that a Sonny and Cher tune we heard in the background at Honda Center on Friday night after Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara won their semifinal games to set up their third consecutive title game showdown in the Big West Men’s Tournament?
It sounded like “I Got You Babe” as the digital clock hit 6:00. And Monson is playing Bill Murray’s role as weatherman Phil Connors, wondering why every Big West Championship Saturday ends the same way every year in Anaheim.
Monson even admitted he had a sense of déjà vu when UCI shot out to a 9-0 lead and the 49ers continually missed shots in close proximity to the basket. But eventually the top-seeded 49ers awoke from their slumber and pulled away in the second half to post a 68-57 victory.
After shooting 28 percent from the field in the first half and trailing UCI, 28-27, at halftime, the Beach shot 59 percent in the second half and used a match-up zone defense to cool off the Anteaters’ hot 3-point shooters.
The victory was more workmanlike than spectacular, but Monson used a golf analogy to point out there are no pictures on the scorecard when you make a par by rolling in a 40-foot putt.
“Great teams don’t play great every night, but great teams find different ways (to win),” Monson said after Long Beach improved its record to 24-8.
And now Monson hopes there’s a different ending than the past two title games, when UCSB beat his team to snatch an NCAA berth from its grasp.
“Santa Barbara has been the obstacle for us the last two years,” Monson mused as he pondered the possibility of another championship matchup before the Gauchos took the court and eliminated No. 4 seed Cal Poly, 64-52, in Friday’s late semifinal. “It could be another opportunity to exorcise that demon.”
That’s the only way to end the recurring nightmare.
Twin 3-peats?: Bob Williams’ Gauchos (20-9) have a chance to become the first Big West team to win three consecutive tournament titles since Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in 1989-91.
In addition, UCSB senior guard Orlando Johnson (game-high 20 points against Cal Poly) has a chance to become the first player in Big West men’s tournament history to win three consecutive tournament MVPs.
“Everybody was looking forward to this matchup,” Johnson said after Friday’s game. “I know we’re excited about the game.”
Pacific was the previous Big West team to reach the tournament title game three consecutive years (2004-06), but the Tigers won only two of them.
Double vision: For the first time since 1990, the men’s and women’s tournament title games will feature the same two schools: Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara.
In 1990, it was UNLV and Long Beach State teams meeting in both tournament finals, with the Runnin’ Rebels winning both contests.
UCI’s future: Despite his team finishing the season with a 12-20 record, second-year UCI coach Russ Turner was proud of his team’s back-to-back tournament performances in upsetting No. 2 seed Cal State Fullerton on Thursday night and then extending No. 1 Long Beach State.
“Long Beach is a really good team,” Turner said. “We put some pressure on them and they responded really well in the second half.
Turner has reason to be optimistic about the future, because his entire team is returning next season. He had no seniors on this year’s roster and had seven freshmen who gained valuable experience.
If his starters remain the same, he’ll have four seniors (Michael Wilder, Adam Folker, Derick Flowers and Daman Starring) and one junior (Chris McNealy) in the lineup next season. The Anteaters also are pleased with their incoming recruiting class.
Layup line: The Long Beach State men are 4-6 in Big West Tournament finals, with victories in 1977, 1993, 1995 and 2007 . . . The 49ers are 22-0 in games in which they have held their opponent below 70 points this season . . . The UC Santa Barbara
women’s team has advanced to its record 16th tournament title game, with an impressive 13-2 record . . . Long Beach State’s Larry Anderson, the Big West Defensive Player of the Year, was in street clothes on the 49ers bench during Friday’s game, still recovering from a sprained right-knee ligament a week ago against Cal State Fullerton. “He’s doing better, but we’re not going to rush him,” Monson said. . . . For what it’s worth, UCSB’s Williams said he expects Anderson to play in Saturday’s title game . . . Friday’s attendance was announced at 5,171.
March 8, 2012 - Hoops Madness Infects Anaheim
March 7, 2012 - Big West Men's Basketball Tournament Anything But Automatic