LONG BEACH — Big West Conference men's basketball coaches universally released a sigh of relief earlier this month when it was announced that San Diego State would not be joining the conference after all, choosing instead to remain in the Mountain West.
But when it comes to the mountaintop of Big West regular-season domination, Long Beach State remains a formidable and perennial front-runner to plant the flag.
Coach Dan Monson's first-place 49ers (11-8, 7-1 in conference) added UC Irvine Coach Russell Turner to their list of admirers Saturday after they secured an 81-59 triumph that was still in doubt midway through the second half.
But after junior reserve guard Chris McNealy scored seven straight UCI points to pull the visitors(10-11, 4-4) within 52-46 with 11:37 left, the 49ers closed on a 29-13 run to claim their 21st consecutive conference win at Walter Pyramid.
"They are a good team," Turner said of the two-time-defending Big West regular-season champions, who appear well on their way to a three-peat. "They've got high-level players at every spot. That's one thing that's different about them in our league."
Four 49ers scored in double figures, including senior Larry Ennis, who sank five three-pointers in the second half on his way to a team-high 17 points, after being held scoreless in the opening 20 minutes.
Ennis finished six for nine from the field and four of his three-pointers were at least NBA range.
Dan Jennings, a 6-foot-9 junior transfer from West Virginia, had 14 points on six-of-eight shooting from the field, while adding seven rebounds for the winners.
Keala King, a junior guard who transferred from Arizona State, finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists, while junior Tony Freeland, a DePaul transfer, had a modest five points, three rebounds and three assists.
Long Beach reserves Peter Pappageorge and Kris Gulley, combined for 20 points on five-of-seven shooting from three-point range.
And, oh by the way, UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb will be eligible for the 2014 conference season.
"They scored inside early on us, but when we tried to close down the paint, their shooters stepped up and made shots," Turner said of the 49ers, who have won five straight games against the Anteaters and last lost to UCI at the Pyramid in 2008. "It was like we couldn't stop them, which I hadn't really felt all year against anybody we've played. We've prided ourselves all year on being able to generate stops in tough situations and we couldn't do that down the stretch here tonight."
UCI forward Will Davis was obviously not overshadowed by the 49ers' talent. The 6-foot-8 sophomore had 14 of his team-best 18 points at halftime. He split his team-best 12 rebounds between the offensive and defensive end for his first double-double of the season. He made nine of 12 field-goal attempts and added two steals and one block.
"He's getting better, there's no question," Turner said of Davis.
McNealy had 10 points in 28 minutes, while senior Mike Wilder hit three first-half three-pointers to account for his nine points.
Senior guard Daman Starring, the team's leading scorer coming in at 14.1 per game and who had averaged 16 the previous four games, had three points to tie his season low. He was one for six from the field to go with three assists.
UCI plays host to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Big West Conference
Long Beach State 81, UC Irvine 59