LONG BEACH, Calif. — Forty-five minutes before the most anticipated home game at his school in decades, Long Beach State coach Dan Monson commands the rapt attention of his players as his final pregame speech nears its crescendo.
Eyes wide, voice strained and arms flailing, Monson urges his players to expend every bit of strength they have to try to topple North Carolina because the 49ers may not ever get another chance to play a traditional power on their own home floor.
"This is an opportunity of a lifetime," Monson bellows. "You might be able to forget other games we play. You're not going to forget this one. Good or bad today, you're going to remember this the rest of your life."
If Monson's passion doesn't hammer home the significance of Friday night's game to his players, the sight of a frenzied standing-room-only crowd at tipoff probably gets the message across.
With Long Beach State eight months removed from its first NCAA tournament bid in five years and North Carolina making its first-ever appearance at the Pyramid, school officials raised single-game ticket prices for Friday to a minimum of $70 apiece. Even so, ticket demand remained so strong Long Beach State could only accommodate it by renting temporary bleachers that seat 2,000 extra fans, enabling the school to shatter its attendance record.
Fans clad in yellow and black definitely get their money's worth in the first half as Long Beach State matches North Carolina score-for-score. The 49ers student section even serenades pockets of Tar Heels fans in the building with a derisive chant of "We can't hear you" late in the first half.
By the time Long Beach State point guard Mike Caffey puts back his own miss with 2:15 remaining in the first half to increase his team's lead to 31-25, the confidence on the 49ers bench is unmistakable. The surging 49ers are feeding off the crowd. The cold-shooting Tar Heels are frustrated. The only question is whether Long Beach State can sustain the momentum.
• • • • •
That Long Beach State can even challenge North Carolina is a testament to its character because the 49ers entered Friday's game severely shorthanded.
Long Beach State graduated four of its five leading scorers from last season's 25-win NCAA tournament team, leaving Caffey and wing James Ennis as the lone key returners. Three major-conference transfers will help the 49ers absorb those losses without too much slippage, but ex-Arizona State guard Keala King and ex-DePaul forward Tony Freeland are still awaiting word from the NCAA if they'll be cleared to play soon or if they'll have to wait until mid-December.
With King and Freeland not in uniform and both backup point guards sidelined by injury, the burden on Caffey and Ennis to carry the team offensively has become particularly alarming. In Long Beach State's 62-44 loss to USC on Tuesday night, those two grew fatigued after the 49ers rallied to tie the score at 35 apiece five minutes into the second half, contributing to a 15-minute field goal drought that allowed the Trojans to pull away.
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The memory of that meltdown is still fresh in the minds of the sleepy-eyed players as they file into Long Beach State's refurbished locker room for a film session Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. Coach Dan Monson strolls in minutes later, sits down next to the projection screen and sets a hopeful yet purposeful tone, sharing with the team how Michigan State bounced back from an ugly loss to UConn the previous week by parlaying two good days of practice into a victory over seventh-ranked Kansas on Tuesday night.
"They took those two practices seriously and they got rewarded," Monson says. "We have to understand we can't feel sorry for ourselves. We have to do that same thing, move on from this and be a better basketball team."
Reliving the USC loss with the team helps Monson and his assistants be more specific about where the 49ers must improve.
Monson is most critical of Kyle Richardson, a starting big man with the unusual habit of giving maximum effort in practice but playing lackadaisically in games. He also lashes out at Ennis for his shoddy second-half defense and bad habit of making needlessly fancy one-handed passes, raising his voice to tell the senior, "Every day you're just pissing money away next year when you make plays like this."
Only once the film session is over does Monson finally turn his focus to the North Carolina game two days away.
"Friday is a different day, a different team, a different opportunity," Monson says. "We don't have to lose on Friday because we lost yesterday. We need to go out and play better than this and sustain it. We're going to have the biggest crowd in the history of the school. We're not going to go out there and s--- our pants."
• • • • •
At least Monson shouldn't have to worry about Long Beach State being intimidated by North Carolina because the 49ers have a long history of facing traditional powers.
In the past three seasons, Long Beach State has crisscrossed the nation to challenge the sport's blue bloods, squaring off against four Final Four teams and 21 NCAA tournament teams in non-league play. The 49ers have embraced the giant killer label, defeating Pittsburgh and Xavier last season, toppling UCLA in 2010 and playing a handful of close games against other powerhouses.
Despite graduating most of his starting lineup last June, Monson opted to host North Carolina and visit UCLA, Arizona, Syracuse and Ohio State this season because such a daunting schedule has become part of his recruiting sales pitch. Coveted transfers like King, Freeland and former West Virginia big man Dan Jennings chose Long Beach State in part because the program afforded them the chance to play heavy minutes yet challenge themselves against the nation's elite teams.
"That was a big reason I came," Freeland said. "All players want to play in big games against the best teams, so the non-conference schedule really sold me on coming."
Whereas Long Beach State's other matchups with perennial juggernauts have come on the road or in holiday tournaments, this North Carolina game is special since it's at home.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams traditionally rewards seniors from out-of-state by playing a road game as close to their hometown as possible, so two years ago he proposed playing at Long Beach State in honor of Huntington Beach natives David and Travis Wear. Monson assumed the Tar Heels would back out of the agreement when the Wear twins transferred in May 2010, but much to the Long Beach State coach's surprise, a signed contract arrived in the mail a few weeks later.
"I called Roy and said, 'Coach, I don't know if you knew this or not but your business department still thinks we're playing,'" Monson said. "He said, 'If we bail out on you guys, we're almost doing the same thing the kids did. I don't want to go down that road. We committed to something, and we're going to stick to it.'"
Hosting a program with the pedigree of North Carolina is a scheduling coup for a small-conference program like Long Beach State. The school's marketing department has taken full advantage, promoting the game everywhere from local TV commercials to ads on the tops of pizza delivery boxes.
As game day approaches, the buzz increases in the community and on campus. Not only do 350 students camp out Thursday night for the best seats, fellow students also regularly stop players on campus to wish them luck against the Tar Heels or ask for tickets.
"They've been talking about this game since I came on my visit here, and that was the summer of 2011," Jennings says. "So yeah, there's some big buzz. Everybody's coming out to watch us play, and we've got to play hard for our fans."
• • • • •
The man in charge of devising Long Beach State's plan of attack to send those fans home happy is an assistant coach who has been with Monson his entire six-year tenure at the school.
Rod Palmer spent the past few nights watching film of North Carolina in hopes of discovering some tendencies that can help the 49ers. Once the players are seated in the locker room for Friday afternoon's pregame film session, Palmer hands out a five-page scouting report that includes keys to the game, player tendencies and what sets North Carolina typically runs.
In about 40 minutes of going over the scouting report with the players and reinforcing it with film clips of North Carolina, Palmer spends minimal time on how the Tar Heels will defend Long Beach State. Instead his focus is three areas he considers keys to the game: limiting North Carolina's transition opportunities, preventing forward James Michael McAdoo from erupting for 20-plus points and above all else, keeping the Tar Heels off the offensive glass.
"Their best offense is a missed shot," Palmer says. "That's their best offensive set. I don't care what they run. They throw it up, miss it and that's when their offense starts because they all crash the boards and they all look for second third and fourth opportunities."
At that point, Monson interjects and asks the players, "What's the best way to get guys off the offensive boards?"
"Make contact on a box out?" guard Peter Pappageorge asks. "Drive them out?" James Ennis responds.
"Those are all things you've got to do, but that's not the best way to get a team off the offensive boards," Monson says, voice rising. "The best way to get a team off the offensive boards is to rip one down, push it up court and shove it up their a-- at the other end."
If Monson is high-strung morning until night on game day, his players strike a better balance between being focused and loose. About an hour before tipoff, Pappageorge walks into the player's lounge, glances at a TV and says, "Whoa, the Baylor women lost?" He and a teammate then chat about that for a couple minutes, anything to make the time until 8 p.m. pass a little quicker.
• • • • •
During a quiet moment before the game, Monson confides he'd feel much better about Long Beach State's chances of springing an upset if Freeland and King were in uniform instead of slacks and dress shoes.
Freeland, a bouncy 6-7 forward who once erupted for 24 points at Georgetown and 25 at Syracuse, will add scoring and rebounding to Long Beach State's undermanned frontcourt. King, a 6-foot-5 guard who led Arizona State in scoring the first half of last season, will give the 49ers more scoring punch at wing and could even spell Caffey for a few minutes per game at point guard too.
Both are holding out hope of playing sooner than mid-December. Monson expects to hear from the NCAA any day now regarding the status of the waivers the 49ers have requested for Freeland and King.
The main reason Freeland left Depaul in search of a school closer to his Los Angeles home was to be closer to his mom, whose health has diminished due to stress caused by the recent death of the forward's grandmother and grandfather. An NCAA case worker denied Freeland's initial waiver because his grandparents were not considered his immediate family, nor is he the primary caregiver to his mother, but Long Beach State is optimistic about the appeal it has filed.
The basis for King's case is that he returned to his native Southern California in part to take care of his mother, who is suffering from breast cancer. What makes King's waiver request more of a long shot is he only sought a transfer after Arizona State dismissed him from the program last January when he didn't meet the ground rules Coach Herb Sendek set for him to return from suspension.
Not being able to help their teammates against North Carolina is difficult for Freeland and King because these are the types of games both came to Long Beach State to play. Leading the cheers at the end of the bench isn't a suitable replacement, nor is playing for the scout team in practice.
"It's really hard," Freeland says. It's frustrating knowing you can help your team and at game time you can't suit up."
• • • • •
For Freeland, the last two minutes of Friday's first half are probably especially frustrating because the 49ers let their 31-25 advantage slip away.
An offensive rebound by McAdoo leads to a dunk to cut the lead to four. Brice Johnson then delivers a put-back dunk of his own. Two more easy buckets for Johnson -- one on a botched defensive assignment on an inbound pass -- enable the Tar Heels to take a 33-32 lead into halftime.
Although Monson tears into his team at halftime for needlessly letting the lead slip away, the attitude of the 49ers is they're right where they need to be. They surrendered 15 first-half offensive boards to North Carolina, yet besides that the Tar Heels haven't been effective offensively, nor have they done a good job defending Caffey off the dribble or Richardson in the post.
"They're not ready for a fight," Freeland says in the locker room.
Adds Pappageorge, "Now we know we can win. If we didn't know, now we know."
Whatever the blueprint is for a Long Beach State upset, it doesn't include North Carolina catching fire from behind the arc in the second half. The Tar Heels, ice-cold from the perimeter in the first half, sink 7 of 13 3-pointers in the second half, including three by previously slumping reserve P.J. Hairston.
When North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige recovers a tipped pass and buries a 3-pointer to give his team a 45-43 lead with 15:36 to play, Monson kicks the scorer's table and slams his palm on it three times as if he knows what's coming. Sure enough, that's the start of a game-changing 17-2 spurt by the Tar Heels capped by threes from Hairston, Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald.
To its credit, Long Beach State doesn't start bickering or quit playing hard, but lack of depth takes its toll.
Ennis fights through cramps in both his calves to finish with a game-high 18 points in a career-high 37 minutes. Fatigue and cramping limits Caffey's effectiveness in the second half, but he still logs 38 minutes and manages 14 points, albeit on 21 shot attempts. Jennings has his best game in a Long Beach State uniform, contributing nine points and 10 rebounds.
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Once the disappointed 49ers trudge into the locker room after North Carolina's 78-63 victory is complete, Monson opts to praise his team's competitiveness rather than harp on its mistakes. Long Beach State players may not have an upset victory over North Carolina to celebrate, but they showed enough improvement in all facets of the game to suggest they'll be formidable later in the season once they have a full roster and time to mesh.
"I have absolutely no problem with our attitude and our effort today," Monson tells his team in the locker room. "If you can bring it like that every day, you'd be a great team. The problem is you guys know where we lost this game. We lost this game the last month because we don't practice like this. If we practice as hard as we played today, we'll be a great team."
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