Time for 49ers to go dancing

ANAHEIM, CA-Long Beach State women’s basketball coach Jody Wynn was besides herself after seeing her team pull off a 56-55 nail-biting win against UC Santa Barbara in the Big West Tournament final to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Yes, Wynn and the 49ers are going dancing.  It was a draining experience for Wynn and her team to say the least.

The emotional high Wynn and her Long Beach State team felt after watching a last-second three-point shot by a Santa Barbara player clink off the rim was probably nothing compared to the angst the 49ers were going through after nearly blowing a 19-point, third quarter lead to the Gauchos.

Long Beach State guard Jewelyn Sawyer (13) makes room to the basket against UC Santa Barbara in the Big West Tournament champoionship game on Saturday, March 11, 2017. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

“That was a tremendous effort by UCSB in the second half,” Wynn said in a postgame press conference. “Those kids didn’t quit, they played so hard. I am proud to be a part of this conference because seeing a team with that talent, and them not quitting, that’s a great testament to the leadership and that program.  Man, we make things interesting don’t we? Overcome with emotions. The two left of me [Raven Benton, Anna Kim] and our other three seniors, this has been the only goal. They didn’t care about points, individual accolades, all they wanted to do was hold up a trophy at the end of the season and go dancing.”  

The exhilaration going through the minds of Wynn and her team couldn’t get any better, except maybe a NCAA win or two. After finishing second in the regular season to UC Davis, Long Beach State made its way to the NCAA Tournament with back-to-back stirring wins in the semifinals (61-60 win against Cal State Northridge) and in the tournament championship game.

Long Beach State ramps up the defensive pressure in the waning minutes of the Big West Tournament women’s basketball final at the Anaheim Honda Center. Photo credit: Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

For a while there, the 49ers looked as if they would coast to the NCAA Tournament berth as they raced quickly to a 10-point lead (18-8) by the end of the first quarter. The Gauchos did themselves no favor by falling behind 14 points going into intermission (33-19). When Long Beach State increased its lead  to 19 at the 7: 33 mark of third quarter, the 49ers went into cruise control, taking their foot off the gas pedal.

When they did, the Gauchos, led by the penetrating drives of guard Drea Toler, stepped up their play, outscoring the 49ers 16-9 to cut their deficit to seven point by the time the fourth quarter arrived. The momentum was shifting, but it didn’t seem like Long Beach State players had gotten the memo as the Gauchos crept closer and closer to the 49ers’ lead.

Santa Barbara coach Bonnie Henrickson, whose team took down No. 1 tournament seed UC Davis in a semifinal game, thanks to a game-high 23-point explosion by Toler, credits her team’s ramped up defensive pressure as a key reason why the Gauchos turned a would-be blowout into a tightly contested game.            

UC Santa Barbara guard Drea Toler (1) singlehandledly kept her team in the game with 16 points in the Big West Tournament championship game played at Anaheim Honda Center. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

“It had to start with our defense. Some nights you don’t score and when it’s ugly and shots aren’t falling you implode, but we had calmness and just had to guard harder. We were active – I think we had more deflections in a five-minute stretch than we had the whole first half. That’s who we need to be consistently. We made the run because we started to guard.”

The final quarter between the two teams came down to two players who dueled it out to the end. Toler (16 points) was everywhere on the court, doing just everything possible to lift her team to victory, scoring nine points and grabbing two rebounds in the fourth period. Long Beach State’s Madison Montgomery saved the day for the 49ers, scoring 10 of her 14 points in the fourth quarter. The Gauchos, shooting at a 63 percent clip, outscored the 49ers in the period, 20-14.

Toler, visibly upset over the loss afterwards, missed two free throws in the game’s last 44 seconds. Toler said she was trying to make plays in the final period for her teammates. 

“I saw lanes open and I drove,” said Toler. “I knew if they were going to step up, I would have my shooters or Drew (Edelman) would be open for a drop pass. That’s all I was trying to do.”

This victory has been a long time coming for Long Beach State. The 49ers last won the tournament 26 years ago. This would be the first time since 1992 that a Long Beach State team played in the NCAA Tournament.

Long Beach guard and tournament most valuable player Anna Kim (15 points, four rebounds, three assists) said she and teammate Raven Benton always thought about holding up the Big West Tournament trophy. They got their wish Saturday at the Anaheim Honda Center.   

“We’ve been thinking about this moment from day one,” Kim said. “I know Raven and I would talk all night about hoisting that Big West trophy, and for all our hard work to pay off, we are grateful and excited to go dancing.”                

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