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The End of Two Journeys Reason Enough to Dance


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

ANAHEIM – For Long Beach State coach Dan Monson and his basketball team, it was a five-year journey to a destination he sometimes wondered if they would ever reach.

The road was bumpy at times, with many potholes and obstacles to try to steer around, and sometimes the team bus ran out of gas at the worst possible time, just as the NCAA skyline was coming into focus.

So when the 49ers finally arrived Saturday night, there was exhilaration, jubilation and joyous relief.

After losing to UC Santa Barbara in the championship game of the 2010 and 2011 Big West Men’s Tournaments, the top-seeded 49ers exacted sweet revenge by dethroning the pesky Gauchos, 77-64, at Honda Center to win the 2012 tournament title and punch their ticket to this week’s NCAA Tournament.

The bus driver on the final leg of the journey was senior guard Casper Ware, the Big West Player of the Year the past two seasons, who scored a game-high 33 points to make certain there would be no UCSB three-peat.

“That’s a relief,” a smiling Monson said afterward. “It’s been a four-year process (for the LBSU seniors) to get here, and any road you travel, you always want it to be shorter than it actually is. But it feels good to get there.”

The 49ers (25-8), who went 15-1 to run away with the regular-season title, don’t have to agonize about whether they will receive an at-large NCAA berth because Ware led a 3-point barrage that buried the Gauchos (20-10).

The 49ers entertained a crowd of 7,564 – largest in the 18 years the tournament has been played in Anaheim – by knocking down 14 shots from beyond the arc (second-most in Big West Tournament history) and finishing an assortment of rim-rattling dunks.

Ware swished eight treys (third-most in tournament history) and dished out a game-high six assists to help turn a close game into a romp over the final 10 minutes, also earning Tournament MVP honors.

“He had this look that said we’re going to do this – and it was contagious," Monson said.

Teammate James Ennis (15 points in the final), another All-Tournament selection, noticed Ware’s game face, too.

“Before the game started, before we got on the bus, Casper had this look on his face that he wanted to get it done because we came here two years in a row and didn’t finish,” Ennis said. “So he really motivated me to play hard and step up for LA (injured guard Larry Anderson).”

Ware did not hide the fact that the previous two title-game disappointments were a motivating factor in his performance this year.

“I’ve been trying to make it for three years now,” Ware said. “I knew I had to be more of a leader with Larry out, so I took it upon myself not to let my team lose. . . . And it’s great knowing that I’m going to the tournament.”

UCSB seniors Orlando Johnson (17 points, six rebounds, six assists) and James Nunnally (17 points, seven rebounds, five assists) did all they could to keep the Gauchos in the game as long as they could, but there was no denying the 49ers this year.

“Too much Casper,” UCSB coach Bob Williams said. “They are a very good basketball team that we had no answer for three times this season (including 71-48 and 70-58 regular-season losses). They go from defense to offense faster than any team I’ve seen. Their transition offense off of steals is so quick, it's blinding.”

And now the 49ers are going to take their quickness and athleticism to the NCAA Tournament. Traditionally, the Big West champion doesn’t receive a very high seed and exits quickly, but Williams believes this Long Beach team “can do some damage.”

It took a long time to get to their destination, so why not stay awhile?

Tradition continues: When she was being interviewed for the women’s coaching vacancy at UC Santa Barbara last spring, it didn’t take very long for Carlene Mitchell to figure out the standards and expectations for that basketball program are so high that she would need a ladder to reach them.

This would be her first head-coaching job after 10 years as an assistant at Rutgers, so the implication was obvious when she was asked by UCSB athletic department officials if she knew how to cut down the nets.

“Hopefully, I answered that question for you,” Mitchell said Saturday, wearing a large smile and a necklace comprised of the net cords she had snipped at Honda Center after her Gauchos won the Big West Women’s Tournament.

There is a championship tradition at UCSB, and Mitchell delivered one in her first year as the sixth-seeded Gauchos (17-15) repelled seventh-seeded Long Beach State, 63-54, to earn a berth in next week’s NCAA Tournament field.

It was the Gauchos’ Big West-record 14th conference tournament title and 12th in the past 16 years, including a Wooden-esque stretch of nine in a row (1997-2005). But it also was the first since 2009, so apparently some people in Goleta considered it a two-year “drought.”

“The Gauchos are back!” Mitchell declared after her team became the lowest women’s seed in tournament history to celebrate on Championship Saturday.

It’s not an exaggeration to say the school’s latest title was always in doubt. The Gauchos finished the regular season in sixth place with an 8-8 conference record and an overall mark of 14-15, in danger of posting just their second losing season in 22 years.

“That just set us up for a greater story,” said guard Emilie Johnson, the team’s only senior, smiling as if she knew she was on a team of destiny. “I knew this team would never give up.”

And five days and three victories later, the Gauchos earned a shiny trophy and an NCAA Tournament assignment that will be announced Sunday. On Saturday, center Kirsten Tilleman led the way with 16 points, 11 rebounds and three assists, en route to being named tournament MVP.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Tilleman said. “The award is just a reflection of my team and coaches. I play for them.”

Gauchos sophomore guard Melissa Zornig, cheered on by friends and family from nearby Coto de Caza, contributed 12 points and three assists off the bench and also made the All-Tournament team, along with three Long Beach State players – center Devin Hudson (15 points, 14 rebounds Saturday), guard Alex Sanchez (game-high 17 points) and guard Hallie Meneses – and Cal Poly’s Kristina Santiago.

Long Beach State, which became the first team in tournament history to knock off the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the first two rounds to get to the final, also had a chance to make history if it had won the title as the No. 7 seed.

The 49ers (14-18) trailed by only one point at halftime and led, 41-40, with less than eight minutes left, but a 10-2 run put the Gauchos ahead to stay. It was 57-52 when Long Beach’s Lauren Spargo drove the baseline with 55 seconds left, drew contact and wound up on her backside after missing the shot.

But there was no call, which led to a technical foul when the Long Beach coaches protested loudly, and the Gauchos made free throws the rest of the way to turn a close game into a misleading nine-point victory.

“I think you know what my view was of the no-call,” said Long Beach coach Jody Wynn said, who also berated the officials as they left the court at game’s end.

When it was over, the Gauchos were asked if they knew what they had just accomplished. “Probably to the world, the impossible,” Mitchell said. “But it’s everything I expected. And I thank them (the players) for believing in me.”

“Coach Mitch set the bar high (this season), because she’s used to playing in March and April,” Emilie Johnson said, alluding to Mitchell’s 10-year tenure at Rutgers, where the Scarlet Knights made eight consecutive NCAA appearances and one Final Four. “And now we’re going to the Big Dance, too.”

There’s nothing wrong with needing a ladder to get where you want to go.

Layup line: It was the Long Beach State men’s fifth Big West Tournament title, most among current conference members . . . The loss snapped the UCSB men’s seven-game tournament winning streak over three seasons, three shy of UNLV’s all-time record . . . The UCSB women are now 14-2 all-time in conference tournament title games . . . Celebrity alumni in the crowd Saturday night: Talk show host Jim Rome (UCSB) and PGA Tour pro Paul Goydos (Long Beach State). Goydos, incidentally, said he will have wrist surgery Tuesday and miss at least three months . . .Orlando Johnson and Ware are projected as second-round NBA draft picks . . . The crowd of 7,564 broke the Anaheim tournament attendance record of 7,433 for the Cal State Fullerton-Fresno State final in 1982.

Previous columns:

March 9, 2012 - Double Vision
March 8, 2012 - Hoops Madness Infects Anaheim
March 7, 2012 - Big West Men's Basketball Tournament Anything But Automatic