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Long Beach State begins push for at-large bid by upsetting Pitt

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Before his players left the locker room to warm up for Wednesday night's matchup with 10th-ranked Pittsburgh, Long Beach State coach Dan Monson wanted to make sure they had the proper mindset.

"We should expect to win," Monson told them. "There is not going to be some dog pile at the end of the game."

It's a testament to senior-laden Long Beach State's confidence and maturity that players heeded Monson's advice after a monumental 86-76 road victory. Even though the 49ers became just the second non-Big East team in the nine-year history of the Petersen Events Center to beat Pittsburgh on its home floor, they left the court with virtually no celebration aside from a quick handshake or two.

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"I was proud of the way we handled that," Monson said by phone Wednesday night. "The hardest thing at a mid-major is believing you can go in and win a game like this. Everyone says they can go in and win, but these kids sincerely expected to win today, and I think that's half the battle."

Long Beach State has every reason to be confident because its roster is loaded with talent and experience. Point guard Casper Ware and wing Larry Anderson are among the four starters the 49ers return from a team that won the Big West by four games a year ago yet had to settle for an NIT berth after falling to UC Santa Barbara in the conference tournament title game.

Hoping to give his senior-laden team an opportunity to spring some marquee upsets and push its way into at-large contention, Monson assembled a nonconference schedule that may be the toughest in the nation. Among the high-profile opponents the 49ers still have left before Christmas are Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina, Xavier and San Diego State, all of whom besides the Aztecs are ranked in the latest AP Top 25.

Upsetting Pittsburgh certainly is a first step toward toward a potential at-large NCAA bid and a favorable seed, but Monson knows his team cannot afford to feel satisfied. The lack of marquee competition in the Big West besides perhaps UC Santa Barbara ensures that Long Beach State must capture at least one more signature nonconference win for its conference tournament not to be do-or-die.  {YSP:MORE}

"It's a goal of ours to compete for an at-large bid," Monson said. "We know one quality win isn't going to do it. When they flash those on the board and start comparing resumes, you need two minimum and probably three."

As fearlessly as Long Beach State played against Pittsburgh, it validates Monson's decision to schedule with an at-large bid in mind.

The 49ers never trailed after the first eight minutes on Wednesday, increasing their lead to as many as 13 points thanks to a dynamic transition offense coupled with the ability to score in half-court sets off dribble penetration and kick-outs. Each time Pittsburgh launched a counterattack to trim the lead to six or seven, Long Beach State absorbed the blow, then delivered one of its own to extend the margin to double figures again.

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Although junior college transfer James Ennis had 19 points and Anderson finished with 12 points and seven assists, the night clearly belonged to Ware. The senior point guard led the 49ers with 28 points, six assists and one turnover, a scintillating performance on a national stage that should earn him some well-deserved attention.

"I don't think you go into a situation like this without an elite point guard and expect to win, and Casper is an elite point guard," Monson said. "He's been through it all before. The reason we answered every call is because Casper and Larry Anderson took control, made good decisions and were able to not panic. "

The lone downside to beating Pittsburgh is that Long Beach State won't sneak up on any of its future opponents. In fact, the 49ers could conceivably crack the top 25 next Monday if they win at San Diego State on Saturday, though several teams in the lower portion of the current AP poll would likely have to lose.

Monson isn't as concerned with rankings as he is with securing an NCAA tournament berth, but he knows the publicity would benefit the program and the school long-term.

"Any exposure we get is great for the program, but this team just needs to continue to get better," Monson said. "All that other stuff will take care of itself."

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