Page 2 From The Tournament: Beach Returns To NCAA's, Aggies Make Program History
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March 10 - Moneke's Putback Sends Aggies To Finals
March 9 - Page 2 From The Tournament: Bibbins' Mom Knows Best
March 8 - Fluker Breaks CSUN Scoring Record
March 6 - Field Preps For Walter Pyramid, Honda Center
by Jill Painter Lopez
Emotional Wynn helps Long Beach State break 25-year NCAA Tournament drought
Long Beach State coach Jody Wynn went from frustration and anger during a harried final minute of the Big West Tournament championship to joyful, continuous tears.
Long Beach State survived a thriller with a 56-55 victory over UC Santa Barbara to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992.
The 49ers (23-10), the No. 2 seed, won the Big West Tournament for the first time since 1991. Long Beach State received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in 1992, the last time it advanced to the NCAA Tournament. It's been 25 years since the 49ers have played in the NCAA Tournament.
That's part of the reason why there was an overwhelming roller coaster of emotions for Wynn. She was in immediate tears after UCSB missed a 3-point attempt at the buzzer. And long after Wynn and her players cut down the net at the Honda Center, she was still choked up.
"Long Beach State's tradition is so great, and I think we are the 10th or 11th-winningest program in women's basketball in the nation," Wynn said. "There's been so many great players. To all the players who have come through and were here (Saturday) and here (Friday), they deserve a banner in the Pyramid and that's been our goal since the day we set foot on this campus."
Long Beach State made its 13th appearance in the Big West Championship game. The last time Long Beach State reached the championship game was 2012.
Earning the right to play in the NCAA Tournament means so much for this Long Beach State team, which beat Big West Conference regular season champions UC Davis twice. Davis was upset by UC Santa Barbara in the semifinals, so there was no rematch.
"It means a lot because people have doubted us from the beginning, saying we aren't that good and we couldn't pull it off," said senior guard Raven Benton. "To me, it just feels like showing everybody that we were a good basketball team and we were going to compete every night. We deserve to win this, and we fought for it."
Wynn led Long Beach State to its first Big West Tournament championship in her eighth season. Her husband, Derek Wynn, is an assistant coach on the staff. The two celebrated, along with their two daughters.
Wynn was near the top of the ladder and swung around the piece of championship net in a gleeful moment. But she found herself wiping away tears all too often.
"This is why I came to Long Beach State," Wynn said. "I wanted to bring a championship back to the Beach and my coaching colleagues have all been champions. I just felt like we weren't holding up our end of the bargain for a little while. I thought about our first team and how we had to overcome a lot, and how we built it and people doubted us because we didn't have height. But you can't measure heart. You can't measure toughness.
"I'm just really overcome with emotion because those five seniors wanted this more than anything."
After Wynn was done with interviews about an hour after the game, she fanned her face with statistic sheets and released a big, deep breath. It was that kind of an emotional day.
With a good ending, of course.
UC Santa Barbara's comeback attempt falls just short
The Gauchos were down by 19 points early in the third quarter and looked down and out in the Big West Tournament championship. Long Beach State held a 33-19 halftime lead and extended that to 38-19.
UC Santa Barbara, however, didn't go away, and in fact, took the lead late in the fourth quarter. After a helter-skelter final minute, Long Beach State had a one-point lead and UC Santa Barbara had the ball. Guard Drea Toler, who had been driving the lane and scoring at will in the third and fourth quarters, couldn't find an opening. She kicked it out to Sarah Porter on the baseline. It all came down to that 3-point shot by Porter in the corner, but it bounced off the rim.
"I thought it would be a little short, but (Porter) got a really good look at it," UCSB coach Bonnie Henrickson said. "They collapsed because it was a one-point game and you have to protect the rim. So we said, stretch it and see if you get a good look and then maybe get the offensive rebound. But it was late, with seven seconds left from the baseline. I couldn't be more proud of this team. I'm disappointed in the outcome for them, but I am not disappointed in them."
UC Davis plays stellar defense to earn school's first NCAA Tournament berth
Coach Jim Les could say "I told you so," in the best way of course. The UC Davis men's basketball coach knew the Big West season would rest on whatever team played the best defense. He said it before the Big West Tournament began as well.
And in the most important game of the season, UC Davis played its most impactful basketball on the defensive end. That ensured that Les and his players were storming the court, raising the Big West trophy and cutting down the net at Honda Center. Les was pumping his fist and basking in his team's first bid to the NCAA Tournament as the Aggies clawed their way to a 50-47 victory over UC Irvine.
"Before league started, we said the best defensive team is going to walk away with the biggest prize and go dancing," Les said. "These guys were dominant on the defensive end. We weren't always pretty offensively, but our defense gave us this championship. Defense is sometimes overrated and overlooked."
UC Davis transitioned to Division I in 2004 and became a member of the Big West Conference in 2007. One decade later, the Aggies used their defensive prowess to capture the tournament championship.
The Aggies held the Anteaters to just 16 points in the first half, which was the team's lowest points allowed in any half this season. They saved their best for last.
UC Irvine had scored just 9 points by the time the game was 11 minutes old. Davis ran out to a lead, and even though it trailed by five points with 4:09 left, UC Davis depended on its ability to get stops to win the game.
The Aggies did their best defensive work on Luke Nelson, the Big West's player of the year. He was held to just 14 points on 6-for-16 shooting. Irvine wasn't able to get him the ball to attempt a 3-pointer on the final possession, either.
With .9 seconds left, Darius Graham batted the ball away, and the Anteaters didn't get a shot up to try to tie the game.
"We didn't let him get any easy touches," Chima Moneke said of Davis' performance against Nelson.
UC Davis will head into the NCAA Tournament - its name written in office brackets all over the country for the first time ever - with 22 victories, the second-most in the school's Division I history. And UC Davis improved to 12-1 when holding opponents to 70 points or less.
UC Davis held UC Irvine to 23 fewer points than the previous meeting. UC Davis was dominated by UC Irvine, 79-49 one week ago.
"I didn't want anyone else (in the championship game)," Moneke said. "I knew we could beat them. After they beat us the second time, people forgot we beat them earlier in the year, which was really disappointing, but it's good. The fans at the end of that game were cheering things we didn’t like. We remembered. We took it to heart, and we took it personally. Coach challenged us, and we challenged each other to be better. And 47 points defensively, can’t be much better than that.”
UC Irvine finds silver lining in automatic NIT berth
UC Irvine, the regular season Big West champions and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, were disappointed with the 50-47 upset loss to UC Davis in the championship game.
But all is not lost. The Anteaters receive an automatic berth into the National Invitation Tournament, and UC Irvine coach Russell Turner is embracing more postseason games.
He was an assistant coach for Dave Odom at Wake Forest when it won the NIT in 2000.
"It's a great experience," Turner said. "I've been on a team that won that tournament at Wake Forest in 2000. I know our guys will appreciate the opportunity to play together again. We'll get over this disappointment. That's what you have to do. You have to be men, gather yourselves and get ready to go again. We'll play a spirited game in the NIT."
Senior Luke Nelson - the Big West's player of the year - will have at least one more contest to showcase his basketball skills. The senior guard had 14 points in the Big West Tournament final.
Big West parity on full display in conference tournament
The Big West has seen seven different tournament champions in the last seven years, which is the best evidence for those who believe there's parity in the Big West.
UC Davis won the conference tournament for the first time in 2017. Last year, Hawaii won the conference tournament. In 2015, UC Irvine won while Cal Poly (2014), Pacific (2013), Long Beach State (2012) and UC Santa Barbara (2011) also raised the trophy. The Gauchos won in 2010 and 2011. CSUN last won the conference tournament in 2009.
That means the NCAA Tournament has been well-represented a myriad of conference teams over the last decade.