LONG BEACH — Three-point shooting has not been Long Beach State’s strength this season, as is evidenced by The Beach’s .329 mark, the second-worst in the Big West Conference.
The 49ers suddenly found their touch Saturday afternoon against UC Irvine, lighting it up from behind the arc with 11 threes in an 81-59 Black and Blue Rivalry win at the Walter Pyramid.
But head coach Dan Monson felt that Long Beach State, the Big West’s first-place team at 7-1 (11-8 overall), didn’t earn the victory completely from behind the arc, calling this win the most complete of the season.
“This game really scared me. I have a lot of respect for Irvine, they’re a really balanced team, they’re veterans and they play well together,” Monson said. “I think it was our best. Like I told the guys, it was probably our best defensive game of the year and we still have room to improve.”
James Ennis had the hottest stroke for the 49ers, knocking down a career-high five threes and scoring 17 points. Dan Jennings scored 14 and pulled down seven boards while Keala King executed in nearly all facets, scoring 10 points with seven rebounds and four assists.
“Keala has a tendency just to rely on his talent and tonight he had a focus,” Monson said. “I didn’t think he was very focused in shootaround but he proved me wrong, I think he had his best all-around game.”
The Anteaters were led by center Will Davis II, a player the 49ers have had trouble with in the past. Davis doubled up with 18 points and 12 rebounds, both game-high numbers.
UC Irvine (10-11, 4-4) was held to just 37.7 percent from the field and has not won at the Pyramid since 2008.
Conversely, Long Beach shot a scorching 56.9 percent for a season-high. Long Beach’s only downfall was rebounding, despite the fact that the 49ers out-rebounded the Anteaters 36-31.
“Our rebounding was our Achilles heel tonight,” Monson said.
Ennis echoed his coach’s concern.
“All-around defense was very good, but our rebounding was not very good,” Ennis said. “At practice we had good defense but we weren’t rebounding good and that carried over tonight.”
Behind strong play in transition, UC Irvine took an early 14-10 lead. But it wouldn’t last.
King then hit three from the wing to cut it to just one. Peter Pappageorge then followed with another triple to take a Long Beach lead and Tony Freeland knocked down two shots from the stripe, putting The Beach up 18-14 with 10:55 left.
Irvine would come back to tie the game at 20-all after two-straight Davis putbacks but a layup by Caffey gave the 49ers back the lead for good. Long Beach led 37-32 at the half.
Ennis was noticeably absent in the first half, missing the only shot he took – a three. But after a pep talk about senior leadership from Monson, the second half became Ennis’ game.
“In the first half I was frustrated and I was talking to coach Monson,” Ennis said. “He said I’m a senior and to pick it up and that’s what I did.”
With UCI hanging close at 39-34, Ennis hit his first three of the game, giving him the boost he needed.
“Like any player, a couple shots going in helps and he had a couple shots go in and it helped,” Monson said.
Long Beach began to run away early in the second half. At 14:24, Ennis threw down a one-handed jam in transition to cap an 8-2 run and give The Beach a 48-39 lead.
Chris McNealy then gave the ‘Eaters a chance, scoring five straight to bring UC Irvine back to 50-44. McNealy scored nine of his 10 points in a four-minute stretch, and was the only Anteater to score during that time.
“I’ve been telling them since the first day of practice, this team’s identity has to be stops, boards and breaks,” Monson said. “When we got stops and boards in the second half we were off and going.”
Long Beach continued to keep the Anteaters at bay, putting a stop to the transition game. UC Irvine would come no closer than seven points. With just over eight minute remaining, Adam Folker dropped in a hook at the baseline to cut the lead to 59-52. But Ennis then hit a decisive three from way downtown to give the 49ers a 10-point lead, and Long Beach went on to win its sixth-straight game.