For three years the women's basketball team at Cal State Long Beach has been poised, always one game away from the Final Four. For three years the 49ers have been denied. It's a statistic of which everyone on the team is aware.
It's not as if the ninth-ranked 49ers haven't been successful. Long Beach has been invited to every NCAA tournament--this is the fifth--and the 49ers have been in postseason play for 11 consecutive years.
But it's not enough for Coach Joan Bonvicini.
"This is a team that hates to lose," she said. "I think they got that from their coach."
Starting tonight, Long Beach, with a 28-4 record, has a chance to break out of its bridesmaid mold. The 49ers will play Texas Tech (21-8) tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Long Beach's Campus Gym in the second round of the NCAA West Regional.
The game will be less a chance for Long Beach to advance to the Regional than an opportunity to advance a cause: Long Beach basketball.
The 49ers have long been in the shadow of the high-powered USC women's program. Nothing, it seemed, could gain Long Beach respect. Not even knocking the Cheryl Miller-led Trojans out of last year's tournament did the trick.
Typically for the 49ers, they came off that emotional 75-72 victory against USC only to lose to Georgia in the final of the West Regional. Georgia went on to lose the national championship to Old Dominion. Long Beach ended the season ranked No. 3.
"Everyone said we'd have a rebuilding season," Bonvicini said. "We really have not. I thought we were going to be good. But we've done better than I thought. When I saw that, my expectations went way up."
Despite a season that featured a few glaring dead spots, the 49ers haven't let themselves down. They beat USC the first time the teams met this season, then lost all direction when the Trojans beat them in the Sports Arena three weeks later. After that, the 49ers went on a five-game winning streak until they lost to Nevada Las Vegas in the final of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. championship.
Texas Tech is the No. 6 seed in the region, and Long Beach is No. 3. The teams haven't played eache another since 1977, when Long Beach won, 69-66.
"They are similar to us," Bonvicini said. "They like to run. They will press us. They are pretty quick. Tricia Clay is a lot like Cindy Brown."
Clay is averaging 15.8 points and 7.1 rebounds a game for the Red Raiders. The 6-foot 1-inch forward will play opposite Brown, a 6-2 forward who is leading the 49ers with 24.3 points and 10.1 rebounds.
In the backcourt, Sharon Cain leads the Red Raiders and Faye Paige the 49ers. They are averaging 12.1 and 12.5 points, respectively.
Tech's strength comes inside, with 6-6 center Julia Conkack, who is averaging 12.1 points and 6.2 rebounds.