PORTLAND — It was their first and last NCAA tournament game.
That's how the story goes for a lot of senior classes who are lucky enough to reach the NCAAs by way of an automatic berth from a small-level conference. What makes Long Beach State's senior class and senior trip different is the alteration they made to the program's reputation. Each group from a small school that reaches the NCAAs creates a legacy for themselves and for the school. Usually it's colloquial and has the radius blast of a glass of spilled orange juice.
But Long Beach State is a respected, unafraid program on the national rise because of Casper Ware, T.J. Robinson, Larry Anderson and Eugene Phelps. They're the ones who took a leap to play for a program that won six games the year before they got arrived. They are the ones who achieved putting The Beach in The Dance. They're the ones who gave 49ers coach Dan Monson the courage to schedule, by far, one of the toughest non-conference schedules of any this season.
“We played so many top teams in the nation, and in all those games we played close and we played together,” Robinson, who finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds (the 55th double-double of his career) said. “With our experience, we could've done a lot here, but it is what it is.”
The 49ers played against Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville and Kansas State. It defeated Xavier and Pittsburgh.
“They've built a foundation and a standard for us to point to for years to come,” Monson said of his seniors. “They've virtually recruited everybody underneath them.”
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They're all communications majors. Shared dorms rooms throughout their four-year careers.
“We never got a chance to get away from each other,” Ware, who had a team-high 17 points, said. He was the one shaking his teammates awake to make sure they were getting to an early class on time.
They had a lot of disagreements the past two years. Less bickering over the ball and understanding they couldn't be “four dogs trying to find and fight for that hydrant to stake their claim on,” as Monson called it. They couldn't worry about whose team it was, who got the last shot and all those things.
“Arguments, fights and all — that's what brothers do,” Anderson said.
The year before they arrived, that six-win year in 2007-08, was Monson's first on campus. He hit it big by getting the electrifying Ware, robust Robinson, incredibly athletic Anderson and uber-hungry Phelps.
“I've had great players I've had to say goodbye to, but I've never had a class I've had to say goodbye to like these guys,” Monson said.
“We put Long Beach on the map,” Phelps said. “Before, I'd never heard of Long Beach.”
Monson started the goodbye process in the bowels of the Rose Garden Thursday evening after his boys-turned-men fell 75-68 to No. 5 New Mexico. NCAA tournaments can build narratives that are about nice/big/pretty/unexpected/nearly impossible turnaround projects. Indiana, which is also playing here in Portland, is one of them. But Long Beach State isn't Indiana; it doesn't have nearly the amount of built-in advantages that the Hoosiers' program does.
Ware was at the forefront of the identity change. He became the star but kept his triumvirate of seniors close to his heart and vital to his — and their — success all season long. As Long Beach State was trailing with less than a minute to go, Ware tried one more time to get his team to take the game back.
Passing up a contested 3, Ware cut to the lane, reached the hoop and drew contact from Drew Gordon. No foul, and the layup rolled off the rim. Gordon was fouled seconds later. Water, exhausted and defeated, exhaled and accepted his team's fate.
“It just felt like a bad way to go out,” he said. “It wasn't like they were there or disrupted us a lot. It was us coming down the court and not making plays that we made all year.”Part of that was due to Anderson's MCL injury in his right knee. He missed time in the Big West tournament because of it. He got five points in Thursday's loss.
“It seems we're always dealing with a lot of adversity, and I'm always the one in the middle of it,” Anderson said. “Broken hand twice, this (knee) injury. We've had bad luck as far as I've had bad luck.”
Anderson said the real pain came in his leg, which was tight. The sore knee wasn't causing nearly as many problems.“We can't blame it on that; we won without him during our [Big West] tournament,” Ware said. “We could've won this game. If he was healthy it probably would've been a whole different story.”
The assistants and Monson were split at halftime over whether to put him back in for the final 20 minutes. Monson made the decision to do it. They were there because of him and they gave Anderson some more run. But he was hampered; by the end of the game, when the outcome was still in doubt, he couldn't stay on the floor for coaches' fear of the 49ers getting beat.
“We had him today — but we didn't have him,” Monson said. “I was really excited that he wanted to try, and in those first five minutes you could tell he wasn't himself. I think the biggest thing was he was winded, and that's never happened before."The dream of an NCAA tournament win dies, but everything else still goes on. The locker room was a split of emotions. Sadness, regret but also a lot of pride. This group is a long way away from six wins and expectations lower than a sneaker's tongue.
“When we look back, it's going to feel great,” Ware said. “Not one person, not two, not three. Four of us will look back and be in them history books. It's an honor."