"This team has a chance to do something special. No distractions. I mean it guys. Don't let your girlfriend, don't let your dad who loves you be a distraction these next two weeks."
Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson said [pretty close to] these words at practice on Friday, February 24th, the day before a critical 49ers tilt with the Highlanders of UC Riverside. To the average observer, it may have seemed like fairly standard coachspeak. But when your team comes out the next day and clobbers an overmatched UCR team on both sides of the ball and emerges with a 24-point victory, you realize that this team has bought in to those words completely.
Despite the fairly voluminous amount of ink that has been spilled about the 49ers, this team is remarkably humble. The practice in question was held in the West Gym in the kinesiology building on campus, a gym that a middle school would be embarrassed of, because the Pyramid was being used for a commercial shoot. There is no practice facility for this team. I was told that they practice here once in a while when the Pyramid is booked. The bookings are not always as glamorous as the encroachment of Hollywood - booked could mean gym class. Apparently the Pyramid plays host to numerous phys ed activities throughout a given day. Not to dog on any one team, but I couldn't imagine the recently disgraced UCLA squad keeping their eyes on the prize with facility concerns such as these.
The next day's game was a work of art. The Beach is known primarily for their offense, but during my two games in California it was their defense that caught my eye. Swarming, in your face man-to-man has been able to lift up this team, even on nights when they've struggled offensively. Even against the Highlanders, a team they were expected to blast (I believe they had a 96 percent KenPom chance of victory prior to tip-off), they played with singular focus and without distraction. The game was not as close as the final margin indicated as Monson inserted his non-scholarship players with five minutes remaining. Riverside played hard, but they just ran into a buzzsaw. Long Beach was focused and determined, not thinking on the potential March spoils around the corner, but on finishing the regular season strong and keeping their at-large hopes alive.
If you're looking for a team below the Red Line to cheer for this March, consider The Beach. They are the quintessential mid-major. To put it briefly, this team is not spoiled. There is no sparkling practice facility. There is no oak and bronze locker room. There is only an occasional practice in a dumpy gym coupled with an insatiable will to win.
at LONG BEACH STATE 64, CALIFORNIA-RIVERSIDE 40 02/25/2012
CALIFORNIA-RIVERSIDE 13-16 (6-9) -- P. Martin 3-10 2-4 9; K. Nitoto 0-6 0-0 0; K. Bradshaw 2-6 0-0 4; B. Shearry 1-2 0-0 2; R. Smith 2-8 0-1 5; J. Gilliam 2-8 1-2 5; T. Burke 3-7 0-0 6; E. Berry 2-5 0-0 5; D. Cowlah 1-4 0-0 2; H. Gaines 1-2 0-0 2; D. Chavarria 0-0 0-0 0; D. Taplin 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 17-59 3-7 40. LONG BEACH STATE 21-7 (14-0) -- T. Robinson 3-8 4-5 10; L. Anderson 4-10 2-2 11; C. Ware 7-14 1-2 17; E. Phelps 5-9 1-2 11; E. Dervisevic 2-4 0-0 4; M. Caffey 1-3 0-0 2; J. Ennis 2-5 1-2 5; P. Pappageorge 1-2 0-0 3; C. Jackson 0-2 0-0 0; S. Starkey 0-1 0-0 0; M. Vantrimpont 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 25-58 10-15 64.
Three-point goals: UCR 3-15 (K. Nitoto 0-1; R. Smith 1-4; E. Berry 1-2; D. Cowlah 0-1; P. Martin 1-3; J. Gilliam 0-3; T. Burke 0-1), LBSU 4-17 (L. Anderson 1-4; C. Ware 2-6; P. Pappageorge 1-2; M. Caffey 0-2; J. Ennis 0-3); Rebounds: UCR 29 (P. Martin 10), LBSU 40 (T. Robinson 16); Assists: UCR 10 (K. Nitoto 3), LBSU 13 (T. Robinson 4); Total Fouls -- UCR 16, LBSU 12; Fouled Out: UCR-R. Smith; LBSU-None.