Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 3/11/12
ANAHEIM, Calif. In the process of building a mid-major basketball program on the upswing, the senior-heavy Long Beach State 49ers scheduled a murderer's row of opponents before the start of Big West play this season. An 88-76 road win over then ninth-ranked Pittsburgh in their second game of the season was the program's first win over a ranked team since 1994. They also defeated Xavier while losing at Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina, where they had a five point halftime lead at the Dean Dome against the country's fourth-ranked team. It should come as a surprise, then, that the arch nemesis they finally vanquished at the Big West Tournament Championship Saturday was none other than the fearsome UC Santa Barbara Gauchos. The 49ers (25-8) relied on Big West Player of the Year Casper Ware's 33 points and used a 12-0 second half run to overwhelm UCSB (20-10) 77-64, erasing two straight years of bitter losses to the Gauchos in the Big West tournament final and earning their first straight automatic ticket to the big dance since 2007. Because of early-1970's sanctions against Long Beach State stemming from the Jerry Tarkanian era, the school's only non-vacated tournament victory came in 1970 against Weber State. "Well, that's a relief," fifth-year Head Coach and Big West Coach of the Year Dan Monson said after the win. The former Gonzaga University coach that led the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight before a narrow loss to eventual champions Richard Hamilton and UConn in 1999, Monson has rebuilt the Long Beach State program to a Big West powerhouse since his dismissal from Minnesota in 2007, leading the 49ers to six, 15, 17, 22, and now 25 wins in his tenure in the South Bay. There's still a difference between being a Big West powerhouse and a perennial tournament team like Gonzaga, the true program archetype that serves as a blueprint for aspiring mid-major teams. Considering this Long Beach team is relying upon the conference's Player of the Year in Ware, along with large, physical seniors in T. J. Robinson, Edis Dervisevic and Eugene Phelps and should also receive fellow senior and Big West Defensive Player of the Year Larry Anderson back in the rotation after a knee injury suffered in their only conference loss, pencil the 49ers off as a definite Cinderella squad with the size to match up well against major conference programs. "I would love to see them get a twelve," UCSB coach Bob Williams said about Long Beach's seeding. "A 12-5 would be a great call for them. If they can get a twelve, I think they could do some damage. They're tough to play against. Their bigs are strong enough and physical enough to play against bigger players like you saw when they played K-State, they played Pitt, they played Xavier they played against bigger players and held their own. Their guards are as quick as anybody, and their transition is faster than what people are used to." It's an overdue return to the tournament for Monson, whose success with Gonzaga in 1999 build the platform for that school's success and shone the spotlight on often overlooked mid-major basketball programs. His only return to the tournament since then was an 11-point loss in the first round to Iowa State while with Minnesota in 2005. "This one was more of a journey," Monson said about the 49ers season when compared to previous NCAA tournament experiences. "This one was more, I think, a relief, because I'm going to have hopefully more opportunities, but that senior class it's not been a monkey, but just such a goal that we hadn't accomplished. And I just didn't think their careers could be fulfilled, and I didn't want Casper Ware laying on the couch when he's my age not ever having that experience because he's just been too good of a team guy, too good of a player, too good of a person and deserves it." Ware's 33 points since his career-high 38 in a win at Pacific last month led all scorers, while his four-point play started Long Beach's 12-0 run in the second half and began to erase any lingering memories of previous Big West championship losses to the Gauchos. "I just took it upon myself not to let my team lose," Ware said. "Not even just scoring-wise, just like if I had to take a change, take a charge. If I had to talk to them, yell at them, make sure do I do that." "Anything my team needed, I just had my focus that I was ready to do it." And there's the state of Long Beach State they've emerged as an up-and-up mid-major that breezed conference play with a 15-1 record before confidently winning the Big West tournament without their best defensive player. This is a team that's more than just a Big West powerhouse this is a team with size, quickness, veteran leadership, and a dynamic senior guard who scored 29 points at UNC all attributes that make them worthy of knocking off a favored team or two in the tournament, now that they've finally knocked off Santa Barbara. "It's a dream come true, actually," junior forward James Ennis said after his 15-point performance. "I've been wishing I would play in the NCAA Tournament, so I'm glad I came to this team to play around the good players I've been playing around." The 49ers will find out Sunday afternoon where they'll be headed next week and which opponent will have its hands full in a first round matchup. "They're all special," Monson said about NCAA tournament appearances. "I mean, I tell the kids they have no idea how special it is, and they're about to find out. That just thrills me."
MORE FROM YARDBARKER

Report: Rockets fear Chris Paul could miss a month with knee injury

15 key questions for NFL Week 7

Vin Scully will not make appearance during World Series

Leonard Fournette still not practicing ahead of Week 7

Dusty Baker calls Nationals dismissal ‘hard to understand’

LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?
GET THE DAILY NEWSLETTER:

Draymond Green feels ‘big relief’ that knee injury was minor

Bradford ruled out of Week 7, expected to play again in 2017

NFL on Ezekiel Elliott: ‘We’re not looking to make a deal’

Brad Stevens: Hayward 'pretty positive' following surgery

Panthers LB Luke Kuechly ruled out for Week 7

NFL reviewing Marshawn Lynch's contact with official, not sitting in stands

Sports & Politics Intersect: Cubs owner up for Heritage Foundation post

The 'Like Mike, only better' quiz

Three Up, Three Down: Dodgers finish Cubs while Astros find pain in the Bronx

The 'Some call me the Rocket, some people call me Maurice' quiz

Kyrie Irving must lead Celtics through a disaster in search for happiness

Jacoby Brissett: The forgotten up-and-comer

NFL Week 7 Predictions

The 'Can I have a quick sword with you?' quiz

College football 2017 Week 8 predictions

NFL Referee Hotline Bling: Austin Seferian-Jenkins drops a call

Blackhawks get extra depth on defense with newbies Rutta and Forsling

The 'Old faces in new places' quiz

College Basketball News
Delivered to your inbox
You'll also receive Yardbarker's daily Top 10, featuring the best sports stories from around the web. Customize your newsletter to get articles on your favorite sports and teams. And the best part? It's free!

By clicking "Sign Me Up", you have read and agreed to the Yardbarker Privacy Policy and Terms of Service. You can opt out at any time. For more information, please see our Privacy Policy.

Sports & Politics Intersect: Cubs owner up for Heritage Foundation post

The 'Like Mike, only better' quiz

Three Up, Three Down: Dodgers finish Cubs while Astros find pain in the Bronx

The 'Some call me the Rocket, some people call me Maurice' quiz

Kyrie Irving must lead Celtics through a disaster in search for happiness

Jacoby Brissett: The forgotten up-and-comer

NFL Week 7 Predictions

College football 2017 Week 8 predictions

The 'Can I have a quick sword with you?' quiz

NFL Referee Hotline Bling: Austin Seferian-Jenkins drops a call

Today's Best Stuff
For Publishers
Company Info
Help
Follow Yardbarker