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LBSU men take conference win in stride

'Niners pleased, but mature following victory between No. 1 and 2 in Big West

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LBSU men take conference win in stride

Freshman point guard Casper Ware (22) has aggressively asserted himself as a scoring option for Long Beach State to go with his passing ability.

Freshman point guard Casper Ware (22) has aggressively asserted himself as a scoring option for Long Beach State to go with his passing ability.

Anthony Ibarra

Freshman point guard Casper Ware (22) has aggressively asserted himself as a scoring option for Long Beach State to go with his passing ability.

Anthony Ibarra

Anthony Ibarra

Freshman point guard Casper Ware (22) has aggressively asserted himself as a scoring option for Long Beach State to go with his passing ability.

Tracy McDannald, Sports editor

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Head coach Dan Monson and his upstart Long Beach State men’s basketball team have certainly shown fans it’s a new year.

In fact, the 49ers aren’t even close to the same team people thought they were before the season started in November. One look at the Big West Conference preseason coaches’ poll and current conference standings is proof enough.

LBSU (10-7, 5-0 Big West) was picked to finish eighth in the nine-team league while CS Northridge was deemed the overwhelming favorite by the media and coaches.

A 74-68 victory over CSUN at the Walter Pyramid on Saturday night to stay in first place was just another reminder of how wide open the conference is this season, but senior Donovan Morris insisted the match-up wasn’t a statement game.

“We don’t really see it as that,” Morris said.

Freshman T.J. Robinson, who defended star forward Tremaine Townsend, said holding his own against one of the Big West’s premier post players was “a confidence booster.”

Turmoil in Big West opens door for ‘Niners

The Matadors (6-9, 3-2 Big West) have been hit by the loss of their leading scorer, senior guard Deon Tresvant, who allegedly helped steal $6,600 worth of merchandise from a Porter Ranch Best Buy along with teammate Dallas Rutherford and Jeffrey Braswell, the son of CSUN head coach Bobby Braswell.

Add to that, a sexual assault charge dating back to May involving former Pacific-turned-Idaho transfer guard Steffan Johnson along with a bank robbery in August by a former Cal Poly recruit, who the Mustangs cut ties with a week later.

While unfortunate for the schools and young men involved, the reality is those events helped give the 49ers the opportunity they are capitalizing on.

Monson has his 49ers focused on anything but the off-court problems around the conference, though.

“Part of it is a little luck staying healthy, staying focused [off the court],” Monson said.

Killer instinct needed

Every team does have its flaws, however. Aside from the obvious free-throw shooting, LBSU hasn’t been able to consistently play a complete 40 minutes — finding that killer instinct — but that’s not really a surprise with such a young team.

Three games over the winter break come to mind.

In the last two minutes of a stunning 76-71 victory over Temple on Dec. 22, Owls guard Dionte Christmas scored 11 quick points to give the ‘Niners a scare.

Against visiting Cal Poly on Jan. 4, LBSU didn’t even wake up until the final two minutes of the first half when sophomore Greg Plater ignited a 14-0 run to give the ‘Niners a two-point lead going into the break. The momentum continued throughout the second half en route to a 13-point victory.

In an 86-78 road win over UC Davis, the 49ers utilized a 41-13 run to end the first half but turned around and gave up 48 points in the second half.

Morris said the team is aware of the lapses but attributed part of it to youth.

“People still have to realize we’re a young team. We still fight like we did tonight, though,” he said after the win over CSUN, which stormed back from an 11-point deficit but watched LBSU prevail.

Reason to celebrate at The Beach

That said, it still looks a lot better than last season’s 6-25 record. If you were a Monson Maniac in 2008, you’re probably thrilled they’re even competitive given all the well-documented, off-the-court drama last year.

The on-going progression of freshmen Casper Ware, Larry Anderson, Eugene Phelps and Robinson, in addition to junior transfer Stephan Gilling, has changed the culture of the team and taken the pressure off Morris, who was Mr. Everything and then some for LBSU last season.

Players from last season’s team, like Plater, Arturas Lazdauskas and Maurice Clady, are now part of a deep LBSU bench.

Hell, it’s not even far-fetched to think this team can represent the Big West’s automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament. Obviously that isn’t until March and the conference tournament would have to be won, but the ‘Niners have shown that kind of potential thus far.

It’s safe to say 2009 is definitely a happy new year for the men’s basketball program.

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