LMU and Long Beach State are regional rivals that have had their fair share of success over the years. This season, these two teams looked to be capable of making some noise among the mid-major ranks. So, of course, a game between these two has to be confined to the radio. With every pair of Californian hoops fan eyeballs glued to the Arizona at San Diego State game, the Lions and 49ers quietly played one of the most exciting games of this young season.
Neither team managed to pull ahead in the first half. A combination of horrible shooting (they combined to go 5-37 from behind the arc) and equally matched rosters made for small leads and frequent lead changes. As you can see in the score box above, the first half ended in a tie.
The second half was a different story. The Lions made just one field goal over the first 5:54 allowing the 49ers to move out to a 45-39 advantage. Lions' freshman guard Evan Payne provided an answer every time the 49ers threatened to extend their lead. That was the story of the first 16-plus minutes of the second half.
With 3:07 left in the game, McKay LaSalle hit a three pointer to give The Beach a seven point lead, the largest of the game. LMU head coach Max Good went in to late game surge mode; the Lions began fouling and Good substituted players for offense or defense. After that LaSalle three pointer the Lions were absolutely clutch, hitting four of seven from the field and four of five from the line.
Evan Payne hit a jumper that made it a one possession game with 53 seconds remaining. That shot set off a string of mistakes by the 49ers that ultimately cost them the game. Payne was fouled by McKay on the shot. While Payne went on to miss the free throw, the Lions pulled down the rebound. They ran a lot of time off the clock jacking up threes but maintained possession by grabbing the offensive rebounds.
This LMU team has played with a level of balance that last year's 11-23 team did not have. That said, last year's Mr. Everything, Anthony Ireland, was counted on to put the Lions in the lead. Ireland was fouled by Mike Caffey (his fourth) with six seconds remaining. Ireland drained both free throws to pull the Lions within one. On the ensuing inbounds play Caffey stepped on the end line, turning the ball back over to the Lions with 4.9 seconds left. He subsequently fouled Ireland (his fifth), sending the Lions best shooter to the free throw line with a chance to put them in the lead. Ireland drained both, again.
LaSalle threw up a desperation three that would have given the 49ers the lead but, he missed. Ben Dickinson knocked the rebound out of bounds as time expired, game over. But wait! Did the ball go out of bounds before the buzzer? The officials reviewed the play and gave Long Beach State the ball with 0.4 seconds on the clock. The Beach missed and the game went final, again. LMU, down by seven late, escaped Walter Pyramid with a one point victory.
Last year, the Lions wouldn't have won this game but they also wouldn't have even been close to winning this game. The difference this year, I was able to write five paragraphs before mentioning Anthony Ireland. He finished with a very respectable 14 points, but so did Ben Dickinson and, Evan Payne led the team with 18. Last season Ireland would have finished with 26.
LMU played with this level of balance in last year's WCC Tournament. They improbably won three straight to advance from the play-in game to the semifinals. Unfortunately, they ran up against #1 Gonzaga. This year, with a whole season ahead for this young team to become even more cohesive, facing Gonzaga won't be too bad. Especially after a confidence building win like this.