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Hoops Madness Infects Anaheim


Randy Youngman is a former page 2 columnist with the Orange County Register.

ANAHEIM -- This is why it is called March Madness.

During the regular season, Cal State Fullerton won a pair of run-and-gun track meets against cross-county rival UC Irvine that evolved into 3-point shooting contests.

The Titans prevailed by NBA-worthy scores of 92-84 and 100-94, scoring 56 points in the first half of one game and 60 points in the second half of the other.

So, naturally, their third meeting in Thursday’s opening round of the Big West Men’s Tournament turned into a defensive struggle in which the seventh-seeded Anteaters held off the second-seeded Titans, 65-59.

No, that wasn’t the halftime score.

UCI (12-19) pulled off the upset by extending its perimeter defense and playing zone against Fullerton’s prolific 3-point shooting guards, holding the Titans to a season-low point total while knocking down twice as many treys.

Cal State Fullerton (21-9) began tournament play riding the momentum of 11 victories in its last 13 regular-season games, including a 77-74 upset of league champion Long Beach State on Saturday that ended the 49ers’ quest of finishing 16-0 in conference play.

The Titans also ended the regular season No. 1 in the league in scoring, field-goal percentage and 3-point shooting percentage – an impressive 41.2 percent success rate that ranked fourth nationally.

So, naturally, the Titans shot 5 for 20 (25 percent) from beyond the arc Thursday night and UCI shot 10 of 22 (45.5 percent).

And, naturally, CSF guard D.J. Seeley, who was 10 for 10 from 3-point range in the two regular-season meetings, went 0 for 4 from beyond the arc and 4 for 13 from the field in this one.

“They just came out and guarded us,” CSF coach Bob Burton said afterward. “They played great defense. . . . They did a great job guarding our shooters. I think we were 0 for 3,000 or something. I was going to put helmets on people in the stands (to protect them from CSF’s erratic shooting).”

That was Burton’s gallows humor, of course, but don’t think for a second that this season-ending loss (barring a bid from the NIT, that is) was painless.

“This is one of the low points since I’ve been here,” he said. “I thought this team was very good.”

But not on this night. It looked as if UCI played with more intensity from start to finish, a point Burton conceded while pointing the finger at himself. He said his team was “too loose” and perhaps over-confident coming off the exhilarating Long Beach State victory.

“There was probably a little hangover effect . . . (maybe) we were still celebrating that thing,” Burton said. “We didn’t see that same intensity, and that’s my fault. I’m the head coach, and we were not prepared mentally.”

And Russ Turner’s Anteaters played as if this was their last game, which it would have been if they had lost. They raced to an early 15-4 lead and forced the Titans to play catch-up all game. The Titans never did.

They closed within two points, 53-51, with 5:50 left after CSF forward Orane Chin (team-high 20 points) went on a second-half tear. But it was only temporary “Chin-sanity” (sorry, couldn’t resist), and the Titans missed two tying 3-pointers before falling short.

“Obviously, we focused on our defensive performance because of what Fullerton had done to us in the previous two games when they had the ball,” Turner said after what he conceded was the most important victory of his two-year tenure at UCI. “We did a good job playing zone defense tonight."

Asked if the improved defense was more a function of intensity or scheme, UCI guard Chris McNealy (career-high 24 points) hesitated long enough for Turner to advise him not to be too specific. (After all, top-seeded Long Beach State is the next opponent in Friday’s first semifinal.)

“A little bit of both,” McNealy said.

“Good answer,” Turner said approvingly.

Turner summed up Thursday’s biggest surprise best: “They beat us (during the regular season) because they made more 3’s than we did. We made more 3’s than they did tonight.”

That, as they say, is why they play the games.

49ers roll on: There was not a scintilla of evidence that Long Beach State (23-8) was coming off its only conference loss of the season or that it was missing senior guard Larry Anderson during its 80-46 romp over No. 8 seed UC Davis (5-26) on Thursday night.

During Long Beach’s regular season-ending upset loss to Cal State Fullerton last week, Anderson – a three-time All-BWC first-team selection and this year’s Defensive Player of the Year -- sprained a right-knee ligament that has left his postseason availability in doubt.

LBSU coach Dan Monson said he would be “shocked” if Anderson was ready to play any time soon, but his absence was not a factor Thursday night.

It also didn’t matter that Big West Player of the Year Casper Ware scored only 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting, because five players scored in double figures and nine players played at least 10 minutes.

Senior forward Eugene Phelps led the 49ers with 18 points to become the fourth player on the current team – and 22nd in school history -- to top 1,000 career points. Previously, Ware, Anderson and T.J. Robinson had joined the 1,000 Club.

“It feels great. Out of the Fab 4, I finally got 1,000, ” said a smiling Phelps.

Freshman guard Mike Caffey started in place of Anderson -- the first change in the starting lineup this season by Monson – and scored eight points with four assists and no turnovers in 29 minutes.

“Mainly, my job is defense,” Caffey said. “Larry is the scorer, so I just try to come in and look in on the offensive side. Tonight we got out on the break and finished. We did pretty good on defense.”

Monson conceded that he was “apprehensive” before the tournament opener, but he’s a coach so that is redundant. He said he’s also worried about UCI, his next opponent, because the Anteaters held the high-scoring Titans to 59 points.

“They all scare me,” Monson said, pointing out that all four survivors are now two victories from the NCAA Tournament. “We’re not the only team doing the math.”

At home in Anaheim:
Anaheim is becoming UC Santa Barbara’s favorite place this time of year.

The third-seeded Gauchos (19-9), defending back-to-back Big West Tournament champions, steamrolled sixth-seeded Pacific, 72-52, in Thursday’s first quarterfinal to run their tournament winning streak in Anaheim to six games over three seasons at two venues.

“I feel good every time I come down here,” said UCSB senior guard Orlando Johnson, a three-time All-BWC first-teamer who led the Gauchos with 15 points Thursday. “We’ve got a little streak going, and I love to come down here."

Coach draws up a great game plan, and we try to execute it before he starts chewing us out.”

Yes, Johnson was smirking, but his wisecrack didn’t even elicit a smile from 14th-year UCSB coach Bob Williams, the winningest coach in the history of the program.

Williams did concede, however, that the Gauchos feel at home in Anaheim.

“I think we feel pretty comfortable here. We’ve played well in this setting the last two years, “ Williams said, citing the experience of seniors Jaime Serna, James Nunnally and Johnson. “We have a great deal of confidence playing down here, and they have passed on the sense of urgency.

"We’re playing really hard and with great confidence – and that’s a great combination this time of year. And like last year, we have one focus.”

The Gauchos’ tournament winning streak began in 2010 at Anaheim Convention Center when they won the title and automatic NCAA bid as the No. 1 seed, and they continued it last year at Honda Center by winning three games as the No. 5 seed to repeat as champions.

The six-game tournament streak is the longest in the conference since UNLV won a record 10 in a row from 1985-88. (How many of you remember the old Pacific Coast Athletic Association?)

Defense wins:
In Thursday night’s last game, fourth-seeded Cal Poly (18-14) demonstrated its trademark defensive prowess to overcome a six-point halftime deficit and pull away from fifth-seeded UC Riverside (14-17) en route to a 66-54 victory.

Cal Poly, which led the conference in scoring defense during the regular season (60.6 points allowed), used a 13-1 run at the beginning of the second half to seize a lead it would not lose.

“In the second half, we got our offense flowing a little bit,” Cal Poly coach Joe Callero said after outscoring UCR, 38-20, in the final 20 minutes to avenge a tournament loss in the opening round a year ago.

The victory earned the Mustangs a date in Friday’s second semifinal against Central Coast rival UC Santa Barbara, reigning Big West champs. The two campuses are about 100 miles apart.

“In our little corner of the world, it’s a huge rivalry,” Callero said. “They know what it means, and we know what it means.”

Women’s semifinals:
Upsets prevailed in the quarterfinals of the Big West Women’s Tournament, with top-seeded Cal Poly the only team among the top four seeds advancing to Friday’s semifinals at Honda Center.

Cal Poly (17-13), the regular-season champion, bounced No. 8 seed Cal State Fullerton in the opening round to set up a semifinal matchup against No. 7 seed Long Beach State (13-17), which rallied from a 19-point deficit in the second half to stun No. 2 seed Cal State Northridge, 57-52, on Tuesday night at Northridge.

No. 5 seed Pacific (17-12) meets No. 6 seed UC Santa Barbara (15-15) in the other semifinal. Opening-round games were played at the campus arenas of the higher-seeded teams, but Cal Poly was the only home team to advance.

Layup line: Senior forward Omondi Amoke of Cal State Fullerton set a single-season Big West Tournament record with 21 rebounds. “I’ve always prided myself on trying to out-hustle guys and out-work players . . . I was just trying to get on the boards and get us some extra possessions,” he said . . . This was the fifth consecutive year, and sixth time in seven years, that the No. 7 seed has upset the No. 2 seed in the men’s tournament. Interestingly, the No. 2 seed in the women’s tournament also has lost in the first round four years in a row. Is it a curse?. . . In case you’re wondering why Long Beach State is playing UCI in Friday’s first men’s semifinal, the tournament re-seeds after each round so that the highest remaining seed plays the lowest remaining seed. . . . . Thursday’s announced attendance was 3,917.

Previous columns:

March 7, 2012 - Big West Men's Basketball Tournament Anything But Automatic