ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) - Orlando Johnson felt the sting when his collegiate career ended without a third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
Johnson was the MVP of the Big West tournament each of the previous two years, when UC Santa Barbara beat Long Beach State both times to win the automatic berth to the NCAAs.
The 49ers prevailed on their third try, winning 77-74 on Saturday night and holding Johnson to 17 points after he scored 20 in Friday night's 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 he is the Gauchos' career 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.
"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."
The third-seeded Gauchos (20-10) have lost only four of their last 17 games - with three of those defeats coming against Long Beach State by a combined margin of 48 points. This one ended a string of seven consecutive Big West tournament victories by UCSB.
"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," tournament MVP Casper Ware said. "I believe it's going to stay that way for a long time."
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 earn the school's first conference title since 2007.
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, one of the finalists for the Bob Cousy Award as the nation's top Division I point guard.
"There was just too much Casper. But they're a very good basketball team that we had no answer for three times this year," coach Bob 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."
The 49ers were 15-0 in Big West play before their 23-game conference winning streak was snapped at Cal State Fullerton in the regular-season finale.
There was some speculation before the tournament that Long Beach State might miss the NCAA tournament - even with only two losses.
"That's a relief," said 49ers coach Dan Monson, who also took Minnesota and Gonzaga to the NCAA tournament. "It's been a four-year process to get here. Any road you travel, you always want it to be quicker than it actually is, and it feels good to get there."
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, as Ennis sank two free throws, converted a steal by Mike Caffey into a breakaway dunk and hit a driving layup to give the 49ers a 70-57 cushion with 4:08 left.
"I've been trying to get there (the NCAA tournament) 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."