GAME NOTES: The Long Beach State 49ers take another step towards defending their conference tournament title as they match up against the UC Irvine Anteaters in the semifinals of the 38th annual Big West Conference Tournament at the Honda Center on Friday.
The top seed in this year's event, the 49ers won the title with a 77-64 triumph over UC Santa Barbara last year, giving the program a fifth championship which is the most among current members of the league. On Thursday night LBSU managed to take out Cal State Fullerton in a 75-66 final in order to advance.
As for the fourth-seeded Anteaters, a squad which has never hoisted a trophy from this event, they tackled the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors on Thursday in a 71-60 final which means they have now won two straight and seven of the last eight games overall.
The teams split their two regular-season meetings, the most recent of those coming two weeks ago with the Anteaters posting a 72-69 triumph over LBSU, which means the all-time series now stands at 57-34 in favor of The Beach.
The winner of this clash will go up against either Cal Poly or Pacific in the championship round on Saturday night for the right to take part in the NCAA Tournament.
The Anteaters dominated the first half against Hawaii, resulting in a 44-22 advantage at the break, which was much needed since the Rainbow Warriors ended up outscoring UCI by 11 points in the second half. A perfect example of a balanced scoring attack, the Anteaters had a total of six players score in double figures, although none had more than Will Davis II who finished with 13 points. Michael Wilder logged a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, followed by Travis Souza with 11 points off the bench, while Chris MCNealy, Alex Young and Daman Starring all dropped in 10 points in the win.
Thursday's effort at the offensive end of the floor was a perfect example of what the Anteaters have been doing all year, spreading the wealth in order to put even more pressure on opposing defenses. Scoring 69.5 ppg on the campaign, UCI has just a single double-digit scorer in Starring with his 13.2 ppg, but five other players putting up at least 8.7 ppg.
The Beach got a huge lift from the reserves last night as Deng Deng and Peter Pappageorge contributed 12 and 10 points, respectively, to the program's nine- point win against Fullerton. Also scoring in double figures for the 49ers were James Ennis with 15 points, adding nine rebounds, and Mike Caffey with 10 as the program knocked down 58.0 percent from the field, which was even better than their 57.9 percent at the free-throw line. Long Beach dominated on the glass, 37-18, in an effort to offset 14 turnovers.
Ennis is recognized as one of the top performers in the conference, the Big West Player of the Year in fact, as he leads the program in scoring (16.9 ppg) and rebounding (7.0 rpg), not to mention pacing the group in steals (55) and blocked shots (42) as well. Caffey and Tony Freeland contribute with 12.2 and 10.8 ppg, respectively.
As long as the Anteaters are not asking one player to carry the load on Friday night, there's a good chance UCI could be aiming for what would be considered an upset.
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