What a weekend! Yesterday was a whirlwind as the 76 Classic at the Anaheim Convention Center wound down to a close, with Long Beach State posting a convincing victory over UCLA behind 25 points and 13 rebounds from forward T.J. Robinson, who was named to the All-Tournament Team with averages of 20 points and 12.3 rebounds in the three-game tournament.
We posted our game article as soon as the buzzer sounded on the 79-68 victory, which you can read by clicking here. But in this column, I’ll fill you in on all the dirty details from yesterday’s action.
Making New History
The Big West had been 5-61 all-time against UCLA before this season. So far, they’re 2-0. Long Beach State had never beaten the Bruins before in twelve previous meetings. Things done changed. Long Beach head coach Dan Monson noted – correctly – in the postgame press conference that the victory was a big one for his 49er program. And it is. He was also right to point out that this is not a powerhouse UCLA team, and that is important to take into consideration: the Long Beach State win was not really an upset, as it would not be a stretch to say that the 49ers are the better team. In fact, anyone following college basketball this season fully expected Long Beach State to win. However, the victory was undoubtedly a landmark for a team that was 0-12 all-time against UCLA, and won six games in the entire season just two years ago. The Long Beach State program is headed in the right direction, and fast.
All-Tourney For T.J.
In their three games at the 76 Classic, the 49ers faced some intense defenses in #8 West Virginia and #19 Clemson. Both of those teams noted that they were prepared to stop 49er guard Larry Anderson. That turned out to be the perfect gameplan for Robinson, the sophomore, who did what he does best – fly under the radar – to post monster statistics on unassuming opponents. The 6-foot-7 forward fully came out of his quiet demeanor this weekend, stepping up his intensity both vocally and athletically. Robinson normally relies on quick footwork and excellent positioning to score and rebound, but in Anaheim he showed freakish leaping ability that allowed him to compete – and beat – opponents much bigger and stronger than he.
He also seemed very comfortable barking orders at his teammates and handled postgame press conferences like a seasoned veteran. At one point after the UCLA game, Robinson was explaining that he knew the 49ers could use their speed as an advantage because, “Coach said they were slow.” Seated next to him, coach Monson immediately objected and laughingly told Robinson to quote him accurately next time. Robinson responded with, “Coach, can I talk?” The two shared laughs for a moment, and the youngster continued with exactly what he was saying before he was so rudely interrupted by his head coach.
It was a small gesture, but very symbolic of the once reserved forward emerging into a star. Robinson being named to the All-Tournament Team is a definite achievement for the player and the program, to have one of their own included as one of the five best players in an eight-team tournament featuring four nationally-ranked squads (especially considering the 49ers did not win until the final day of competition).
Point Guard Play
Starting point guard Casper Ware will get the credit – and deservedly so – for sparking Long Beach State’s second half run that put the 49ers in the lead for good. He did score nine straight points in just over three minutes, after all. But before all of that, it was sophomore backup Jesse Woodard who kept Long Beach in the game with good decisions and pressure defense as he led the 49ers to fight back from a first half deficit while Ware rested. Woodard played in ten minutes before the half, but took over point guard duties for a stretch of over three minutes and guided Long Beach back into the game from a seven-point deficit. It was an important performance for the sophomore, who sat out last season after transferring from Colorado State. He’s been trying to work his way into the rotation, but after Sunday, he may have forced coach Monson’s hand.
From time to time, Long Beach State continues to deploy a haphazard, pseudo-trapping fullcourt press that intends to throw off the rhythm of the opposing offense, and hopefully create a turnover or two in the process. I’ve been strongly opposed to the idea all season – not to pressing in general, but to the specific press that the 49ers currently run – so I decided to chart its success against UCLA to see if my gut was right. By my count, Long Beach State used the press five times (all in the first half) resulting in it being broken four times and resulting in 7 points for UCLA (a Nikola Dragovic jumper, a Drew Gordon lay-up, a Mustafa Abdul-Hamid jumper and a Jerime Anderson free throw). Once, the 49ers forced a turnover with the press and junior Greg Plater nailed a three-pointer on the other end. So that’s a score of 7-3 in favor of UCLA, a slow team that has turnover issues. Not exactly the overwhelming evidence I was looking for, but we’ll continue to chart its effectiveness throughout the season.
Losing senior Arturas Lazdauskas for the season to a broken hand is a huge blow to Long Beach State because of the dependable post defense and rebounding that the big Lithuanian provided. Monson countered the loss by relying more on his starters, and it worked because T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps both played brilliantly this weekend. It remains to be seen if newcomers Lin Chang and Kyle Richardson will benefit from the loss of Laz, since they received limited minutes this weekend (although that may have simply been because Monson relied on his starters because he saw chances to win this weekend). Speaking of those starters, Casper Ware’s strained calf muscle was bothering him in the Thursday game against West Virginia but seemed to be just fine on Sunday against UCLA. No official word on his comfort, but it was Ware’s quickness and ability to attack the basket that put the game in Long Beach’s hands, and his explosive first step was the most important ingredient.
The 49ers do not play again until their December 7 date at #3-ranked Texas. That gives Long Beach State about a week to prepare for the team that most predict poses the greatest threat to Kansas in the Big 12 Conference. Texas is big, fast, and extremely talented; similar to the West Virginia team that soundly defeated the 49ers on Thursday. Of course, West Virginia may be underrated at #8, and since it’s so early in the season, Texas’ #3 ranking doesn’t carry a lot of weight at the moment. With Long Beach State starting to look more comfortable with playing at an elevated level with powerhouse programs, anything is possible. Stay tuned for previews of that game and much, much more 49er basketball news coming up in the next few days!
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