Having been on the road for nine of their last 13 games, since Nov. 26, the Long Beach State 49ers didn't have much time to practice, didn't develop any team unity and lost the confidence with which they'd started the season after going 23-9 last year.
Just Utah State's luck.Long Beach had a home game Jan. 11, then six days off before games with nearby Fullerton and UNLV. The 49ers used the time wisely, honing their press and shooting skills and getting some cohesiveness.
In walks Utah State Thursday night to cramped Campus Gym, where there are enough lines on the multi-sport court to start a road map and the fans are up close and personal and where the 49ers feel very much at home, and the 49ers run the Aggies out of the game in a hurry. "One of the great homecourt advantages," said Aggie Kendall Youngblood, a three-year starter who's never won here.
Long Beach dominated the final 26 minutes for an 89-78 victory, raising its Big West Conference record to 3-5 and overall mark to 7-9 while snapping the two-game Aggie win streak and dropping them to 4-3 and 7-9.
"Their press got us going wild," said Youngblood. "When they got us wild, we took bad shots and got out of control."
The Aggies shot 41.9 percent from the field after averaging 49 percent against other league teams. And Long Beach, which had been limping along at 40.3 from the field, hit 49.3 percent of its shots, using its height advantage but also quickness inside to frustrate Utah State. "They're just so big inside," said Youngblood.
The one thing that kept it from getting totally away from Utah State was free throws. The Aggies made 16 of 21 the first half, getting seven more points from the line than the 49ers to go to intermission just four down, 42-38, though they'd been outjumped and outhustled. "I didn't think we had a lot of jump," said USU Coach Kohn Smith. The Ags made six more free throws in the game; both teams ended up with 22 points at the line.
"They outrebounded us so bad (40-36, but 27-19 in the first half) - that was big," noted Smith, "and I didn't think we handled the transition from the press offense to the half-court offense, and our shot selection was not very good."
Forty-niner Coach Seth Greenberg said the press, long a staple of Long Beach ball, "has not been a big part of our arsenal." That's because they were traveling so much they didn't practice it.
But for Utah State, Greenberg deemed it a necessity. "We thought we had to slow down Youngblood and Jay Goodman before they got going," he said. "Goodman wasn't shooting the way he usually does; credit Troy (Joseph) and Lucious (Harris).
"He's a great player," Greenberg insisted about Goodman. "You can slow him down, but you can't stop him."
Goodman did finish with 19 points, tying Youngblood for the team lead, but he was 1-for-6 the first half (Youngblood was 2 for 7).
Harris totaled 24 points, 12 in each half.
"Their press," said Smith, "got us into a tempo where instead of working offensively, we'd shoot quickly without running the offense."
Long Beach forward Kevin Cutler (13 points, eight rebounds in 21 minutes, limited by fouls) said defense was the key, particularly in the first half against Goodman.
"We put Troy on him," Cutler said. "That would give anybody a terrible game. He bothers you, he's in your face, he pushes you - he's nasty."
Cutler said that's why the 49ers started Joseph, who had started only six other games.
That and the fact Harris was still on Greenberg's hit list for missing a curfew Saturday in Las Vegas. For the second straight game, Harris, the 49ers' most-touted player, didn't start. Greenberg said he has a pulled back muscle, too, and didn't practice much Wednesday.
Smith was most impressed with 49er point guard Bobby Sears. Smith had thought the Aggies could make some headway with their ballhandling game against him, but he was wrong. "Sears handled the tempo," Smith said.
"We're starting to play together now," said Cutler. "There's definitely a different attitude coming in now."
"We're starting to get chemistry," Greenberg said, calling it, "The best game offensively, in terms of patience, we've played all year."
Just the Aggies' luck.
They needed this one. They go into unbeaten New Mexico State Saturday, then come home to find the No. 1 team in the nation (UNLV) awaiting them in the Spectrum at 10 p.m. Monday.