ANAHEIM — The Long Beach State men's basketball team played North Carolina in the Dean Dome and battled Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse earlier this season. The 49ers also won at then-No, 9-ranked Pitt and lost hard-fought road contests to Louisville and San Diego State.
But for a little more than 26 minutes in a Big West Conference Tournament semifinal against UC Irvine on Friday, no team had tested Coach Dan Monson's hardened veteran cast any more thoroughly than the Anteaters.
"I think we earned their respect tonight," said UCI Coach Russell Turner, whose No. 7-seeded squad duplicated the fast start it used Thursday to upset No. 2-seeded Cal State Fullerton in the quarterfinals, against the top-seeded 49ers at Honda Center.
Long Beach State (24-8), which eliminated UCI in last year's tournament quarterfinals and swept the two regular-season meetings this season, trailed, 9-0 and 11-5, as it opened the game two for 12 from the field.
But Long Beach State rallied to claim a 68-57 triumph that finalized UCI's first 20-loss season since the 1998-99 campaign.
UCI (12-20), which lost for the 11th time in 14 conference tournament semifinal appearances, lost seven of its final 10 games and extended its NCAA Tournament drought to 35 seasons since it joined the Division I ranks.
But with Thursday's 65-59 victory over Fullerton and Friday's spirited battle with perhaps the conference's most dominant team in recent memory, the Anteaters, one of only nine teams among 338 Division I programs without a senior, earned more respect that that afforded them by the 49ers.
"I believe every guy on our team thought we were going to come here and win tonight and I believe we played like it," Turner said. "We gave ourselves a chance to do that for 25 minutes. But [the 49ers, now 17-1 against Big West foes this season] did what really good teams can do. They turned it on and made some plays and made some big shots, and we turned it over, which has been our nemesis.
"I think we're better than what the average guy perceives a 20-loss team to be. What we did, what we're supposed to do. We got better.
"I think all of our guys know that we've got a chance to compete for this league title. Soon. Now. I'm already focused on next year and I'm hoping every guy in our program is thinking that way."
UCI appeared focused on a second straight upset, as it held a 28-27 edge at halftime.
The third of three Irvine second-half three-pointers with 15:50 left in the game put the Anteaters up, 43-39.
But Long Beach, mixing three-pointers with inside conversions that had eluded it to that point (its post players opened a combined one for 15), put together a 14-0 run that created a 10-point cushion with 9:41 left.
UCI never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
Junior guards Mike Wilder and Daman Starring each had 15 points for the 'Eaters, who made 10 of 24 three-point tries, but were dominated on the boards (39-22, including a 17-5 Long Beach advantage on the offensive glass) and lost the turnover battle, 16-14.
Starring was five of six from threedom.
The 49ers relied heavily on conference Player of the Year Casper Ware in the first half, when he had 15 of his game-high 22 points.
But Ware did not contribute to the crucial 14-0 spurt, in which freshman Mike Caffey, playing in place of injured three-time all-conference senior Larry Anderson, made a pair of three-pointers.
Junior James Ennis drained a three-pointer and senior T.J. Robinson converted a three-point play during the run to convincingly turn the tide.
UCI sophomore Chris McNealy had 11 points, five rebounds and four assists, while Wilder added a team-best six rebounds.