LONG BEACH — The basketball season, which a week ago had come close to an inglorious end, is still alive at Cal State Long Beach.
The 49ers will play at Stanford Friday night in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament. The NIT is well below the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament in prestige, but participation in it is considered an honor by 49ers Coach Joe Harrington.
"Who would have guessed we'd get a postseason bid the first year?" asked Harrington, who has guided the 49ers to a 17-11 record in his first season at Long Beach.
If the 49ers can win three games in the tournament, they will play in the semifinals March 29 at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.
The 49ers had hoped to sweep through last week's Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. tournament at the Forum in Inglewood and be among the NCAA's postseason field of 64. But they lost, 74-69, Thursday afternoon to UC Irvine's Anteaters--a team they had beaten twice during the regular season.
"There was kind of an empty feeling after the Irvine game," Harrington said.
The team had to wait three days to see whether its season--Long Beach's most successful in eight years--would continue. When the announcement of the NIT invitation came at the team's banquet Sunday night, the players were ecstatic.
"They were cheering and going crazy," Harrington said.
"There was really nothing to do but go to school," said forward Andre Purry, describing the bleak aftermath of the loss to Irvine.
Purry, despite a hip injury that kept him from practicing last week, scored 26 points against UCI, tying his high for the season.
Senior Morlon Wiley wondered whether his college career was over while lying around his house all weekend.
"I really didn't know what to do," Wiley said as he dressed for practice Monday. "This just shows how basketball has its ups and downs. Coach always tells us to be optimistic, because the game has its highs and lows. We experienced them in one week."
The week before the loss to Irvine, the 49ers won at Nevada-Las Vegas, possibly the biggest victory in the university's history.
"We still have a statement to make, to show people what kind of basketball we're capable of playing," said center John Hatten, who kept in shape during the three-day layoff by playing basketball at a beach playground. The loss to Irvine "was pretty devastating at first. Then after the loss sank in, we thought maybe we'd have a shot for the NIT."
Second for Coach
The 1979-80 Long Beach team was the only previous one to appear in the NIT, going 1-1.
This will be the second NIT for Harrington. In 1986, his George Mason University team defeated Lamar before being eliminated by Providence.
Harrington and his associate, Seth Greenberg, looked over a statistics sheet on Stanford Monday.
"They're a very good shooting team," said Greenberg of the Cardinal, which has a 20-11 record and is one of two teams to beat Arizona. "But they averaged 16 turnovers a game, and only one team pressed in their conference (Pac-10)."
The harassing, full-court 49ers press has forced opponents into an average of 21 turnovers a game this season.
Stanford's top player is junior guard Todd Lichti, who is averaging 19.6 points a game. Greenberg said Lichti will be a National Basketball Assn. first-round draft choice next year.
"I think we'll do all right because we'll be rested," Harrington said.
But if the 49ers are to be successful, they will need more points from reserve guard Rigo Moore, an outside shooting specialist who has not made an outside shot in three games.
"That will cease," predicted Moore, a dependable scorer for most of the season.
Harrington said there are some strong teams in the NIT field of 32. Among the better-known teams are Pepperdine, Ohio State, New Mexico, Georgia, Boston College, Utah, Tennessee, Houston and Clemson.
The 49ers have excellent credentials. They defeated Nevada Las Vegas, UC Santa Barbara, Loyola Marymount and North Texas State, all of whom are in the NCAA tournament.
The possibility of going to New York is a glamorous notion for the 49ers, Wiley said, but they are well aware of the danger of looking ahead.
"We felt we could win the (PCAA) tournament, but we should have just concentrated on the Irvine game," Wiley said. "We're going to take these games one at a time."