Gauchos greet 49ers in Big West title game

Mar 10, 2012 - 3:50 PM Anaheim, CA (Sports Network) - With the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament hanging in the balance the top-seeded Long Beach State 49ers will yet again battle the third-seeded UC Santa Barbara Gauchos in the Big West Tournament Championship Game at the Honda Center.

Long Beach State didn't have an issue in the regular season against UC Santa Barbara winning both meetings by double digits and now leads the all-time series, 58-55. This is the third straight year that these teams have met in the title game.

UC Santa Barbara played very well down the stretch, winning six of seven games to close out the year. The Gauchos have carried that success into postseason as they have added a pair of wins, including a 64-52 victory over Cal Poly in the tournament semifinals. The Gauchos are not strangers to this contest, as they have won the last two tournament titles, besting the 49ers each time.

It's no surprise that Long Beach State has made it to the Big West Championship game again after the 49ers rolled through the conference this season with a 15-1 mark. The 49ers haven't had too much issue in the tournament either with double-digit wins in both games, including a 68-57 decision over UC Irvine in the semifinals.

UC Santa Barbara had trouble shaking Cal Poly in the semifinals especially in the first half as the Gauchos led just 32-31 at the break despite hitting on 46.2 percent including 4-for-8 from three point range. The Gauchos then amped up the defensive pressure and held the Mustangs to 29.1 percent shooting as they coasted into the championship game.

The Gauchos are a team that normally knows how to score effectively. During the regular season UC Santa Barbara ranked third in the Big West in both points per game (72.9) and field goal percentage (.457) and also produced well on the boards, bringing down a league-leading 38.0 rebounds per game. It's easy to score a ton when the team's leading scorer also paces the entire conference. Senior guard Orlando Johnson finished the season atop the Big West scoring charts (19.8 ppg) and also proved to be a solid rebounder out of the backcourt (5.9 rpg). He was named the Most Valuable Player in each of the last two Big West Tournament title games and will certainly be heard from in this contest. In the semifinals, Johnson was impressive again, scoring 20 points. James Nunnally (15.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is also a major scoring threat for the team, although there is little scoring depth after him.

Although they eventually won, the semifinal game with UC Irvine was not an easy one early on for the 49ers. Long Beach State actually trailed 28-27 at the half after connecting on only 28.1 percent of its shots from the floor in the first 20 minutes. The 49ers found their range though and hit on 59.1 percent of their shots in the second half to pull away and push themselves into the title game.

Time and time again Casper Ware has delivered for Long Beach State and the senior point guard did so once again by putting in a game-high 22 points against the Anteaters. Ware, a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, finished the season leading the team in scoring (16.9 ppg) and assists (3.2 apg). T.J. Robinson (12.2 ppg, 10.2 rpg) is strong down low, punching out double-doubles without much effort this season. He kept that going against UC Irvine by scoring 11 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Eugene Phelps (9.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg) also had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Mike Caffey put in 11 points in filling the hole left by Larry Anderson (14.0 ppg) who the 49ers have been without for both tournament games due to injury. Even without Anderson, Long Beach State is still a team that can score (73.9 ppg).

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