ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Long Beach State seniors Casper Ware, Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps didn't expect UC Santa Barbara to beat the 49ers in the championship game of the Big West Tournament for the third straight year.
And in a small way, neither did Gauchos coach Bob Williams.
The odds caught up to UCSB on Saturday night. Ware scored 33 points, freshman James Ennis got six of his 15 points in the final 5:08 and Long Beach State relied on its long-range shooting to beat UCSB 77-64 to earn the school's first conference title since 2007 and gain the automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
"That's a relief," said 49ers coach Dan Monson, who will be taking his third team to the NCAAs after making it with Minnesota and Gonzaga.
"It's been a four-year process to get here," he added. "Any road you travel, you always want it to be quicker than it actually is, and it feels good to get there. I told Cas: `Anytime I've even gone to the NCAA tournament, my best player has taken me there. And I just can't get it out of my mind that you're going to do that this week.' He had a look that was contagious."
Ware, Anderson, Robinson and Phelps all came to Long Beach in Monson's first recruiting class, which makes this achievement even more significant to all concerned.
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"Cas has just been too good of a player, too good of a team guy and too good of a person not to get there, and he deserves it," Monson said. "The same way with Larry and Eugene and T.J. They're all special and they deserve it. I told the kids they have no idea how special it is, and they're about to find out. That just thrills me."
Ware was 10 for 23 from the field for the two-time Big West regular-season champion 49ers (25-8). They were 14 for 33 on 3-pointers, including 8 for 16 by Ware, the tourney MVP.
"I've been trying to get there for three years," said Ware, who wore one of the nets around his neck during the postgame press conference. "James took one year, and he's there, so he's the lucky one. I tried three years and finally got there the fourth time. So it's great to know that I'm going to that tournament.
"It's been a great rivalry with them ever since I stepped on the Long Beach State campus, and it just got built up over the years. I believe it's going to stay that way for a long time."
Long Beach State played its third straight game without Anderson, the Big West defensive player of the year, who sprained a ligament in his right knee in a 77-74 loss at Cal State Fullerton that ended the regular season.
"I had a better focus going into the tournament because I knew I had to be more of a leader with Larry out, so I just took it upon myself not to let my team lose," Ware said. "Anything my team needed, I was ready to do it - not just scoring."
UC Santa Barbara (20-10) has lost only four of its last 17 games, with three of those defeats coming at the hands of Long Beach State. This loss ended the Gauchos' string of seven consecutive Big West tournament victories. James Nunnelly and Orlando Johnson each had 17 points for UCSB.
The 49ers started out 15-0 in conference play including two wins over Santa Barbara by a combined margin of 35 points, before their 23-game conference winning streak was snapped by the Titans.
"There was just too much Casper. But they're a very good basketball team that we had no answer for three times this year," Williams said. "We tried three different ways to play them and had no answer. They were too good on this night. They say it's hard to beat a good team three times. Well, it's hard to beat a good team in the same championship game three straight years."
Johnson, the tournament MVP the previous two seasons and UCSB's all-time leading scorer, shot 7 for 16 after scoring 20 for the third-seeded Gauchos in Saturday's 64-52 semifinal victory over Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Johnson won his third Big West Conference scoring title in three seasons after transferring from Loyola Marymount, and is the Gauchos' all-time leading scorer.
"I had a great run -- went to the [NCAA] tournament twice, got a whole bunch of accolades around my name, and I think I definitely helped raise the level of this program to new heights," Johnson said. "It's a little hard for me right now because I've never lost a championship game before. But I'm going to learn from this, and the young guys here will learn from this. Hopefully they will keep this up. We got here three times and we had a tradition going."
Ware's four-point play gave Long Beach State a 51-46 advantage with 12:41 remaining. He Ware was fouled by Jaime Serna on a 3-pointer from the right elbow, then converted the free throw before the 49ers increased the margin to 57-46 on a three-point play by T.J. Robinson that began with his fast-break layup off a one-bounce pass in the lane from Mike Caffey.
Ware, the Big West player of the year for the second straight season, added another 3-pointer and Eugene Phelps capped the pivotal 12-0 run with a layup in heavy traffic to give Long Beach State a commanding 59-46 lead with 9:18 to play.
UCSB got no closer than seven points after that, as Ennis sank two free throws, converted a steal by Caffey into a breakaway dunk and hit a driving layup to give the 49ers a 70-57 cushion with 4:08 left.