LONG BEACH — It took Keala King all of 19 minutes to make an impact in his first game as a 49er.
With seven seconds remaining in the Big West opener between Long Beach State and Pacific and the Tigers needing just a three to tie, Sama Taku drove inside and looked to kick it out to Ross Rivera on the corner. But King picked Taku off, forcing Rivera to foul him.
King then knocked down a free throw, and the one was just enough for the defending Big West champions to hold on for a 67-63 win.
“It was a great win for us but really, this is game one for us as a group,” said Long Beach head coach Dan Monson.
The game marked the first time that the 49ers (5-7, 1-0 Big West) had all three midseason transfers eligible. King, a transfer from Arizona State, suited up for the first time this season along with Tony Freeland, who came to The Beach from DePaul. Loyola Marymount transfer Edgar Garibay is eligible for competition but is still struggling with issues related to his ACL surgery from last year so he did not dress.
But having King, a versatile guard, and Freeland, an athletic forward, available made a world of difference.
Freeland scored 15 points and pulled down four rebounds. While King scored only the one free throw, he did get five rebounds. The addition of both players was a welcome reprieve for a depleted Long Beach bench.
Mike Caffey, who has sometimes gone entire halves without much rest, was able to recharge on the bench on a few occasions. The sophomore scored 19 points with three assists and four rebounds and was energized through the second half for the first time this season.
“Mike Caffey had legs in the second half for the first time because we had options,” Monson said. “We were able to get some other opportunities in there.”
James Ennis also scored 19 points with three rebounds, four steals and a block and finally got some help on the glass.
“The versatility has changed with the addition of those kids,” Monson said. “It allows James to go back to small forward… Keala is 6-5 but he can guard inside and he can post.”
The Pacific-Long Beach State clash has been known to be a fast, physical battle in recent seasons. This edition, which featured a second-half resurgence by both teams, featured four ties and three lead changes. Bodies hit the floor on nearly every other possession and there was little breathing room.
“I’ve never played Pacific, not with (former 49ers) Casper Ware or Larry Anderson or anyone where guys didn’t get frustrated,” Monson said. “I said you’ve got to score in different ways against them.”
Both teams opened about as cold as possible. Pacific opened up shooting 33.3 percent from the field but the 49ers shot a dismal 14.3 percent over the first eight minutes. The Tigers defense absolutely stifled the 49ers inside and dominated on the glass.
The Beach didn’t hit an outside shot until 2:23 when Caffey drained a fall-away jumper off the wing.
Caffey’s jumper made the score 25-16 and started the only thing that either team could count as a rally in the half. After a Ross Rivera free throw that increased the Tigers’ lead to 10, Caffey laid one in off the inbound and Freeland hit a second-chance shot from under the basket. Freeland then knocked down 1-of-2 at the line to bring the score to 26-21 at the half.
The 49ers found a new life in the second half. Ennis opened the half with a 3-pointer – the first 49er three of the game – and suddenly Long Beach State was a brand new team.
“Toward the end of the first half we ended aggressive so I felt like I wanted to be more aggressive,” Caffey said. “And they were able to hit some big shots.”
Freeland added, “Lots of big shots.”
Ennis hit another three a few minutes later to put the 49ers up 35-31, and then showed that 49ers weren’t going away when he swiped one and took it back for a fastbreak slam. The Beach then went on a 12-3 run to take a 40-38 lead.
From there, the 49ers could do no wrong.
Long Beach employed a high-pressure defense that matched the Tigers’ physicality. The outside game that was completely absent in the first half got hot, with Ennis and Caffey making shots all over the court. The inside combination of Freeland and Jennings was effective as well, as they helped close the rebound margin. The 49ers built up a lead as large as 10 points.
Pacific (6-7, 0-1 Big West) then went on a run of its own to close the game. With less than a minute to play, Caffey missed two free throws and Trevin Harris then hit a three, bringing Pacific back to within two. Peter Pappageorge hit one for Long Beach with 25 seconds left, but that still left the Tigers with plenty of time to get a play off.
The 49ers swarmed the Tigers on their final possession and the Tigers caved under the pressure.
“For some reason Long Beach has a tough game with Pacific, home or away we’ve got to come out and fight,” Caffey said. “And that’s what we did.”