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Long Beach to play for title

March 10, 2007|Peter Yoon; Dan Arritt | From Times Staff Reports

It wasn't the Long Beach State basketball team to which fans had become accustomed Friday night in the Big West Conference semifinals at the Anaheim Convention Center, but the result was.

The 49ers, with leading scorer Aaron Nixon in foul trouble and second-leading scorer Kejuan Johnson having an off night, turned to their inside game and defense for a 77-63 victory over UC Irvine that put them in the conference championship game for the second consecutive season.

Tonight at 8, with an automatic NCAA tournament berth on the line, the 49ers will face Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Nixon, the conference player of the year, sat out nine minutes of the first half because of foul trouble and fouled out after scoring 16 points -- nearly nine less than his average over the previous four games. Johnson, a first-team all-conference guard, scored only four points.

But Long Beach showed its versatility by going to forwards Sterling Byrd and Dominique Ricks, who combined for 31 points and 15 rebounds as their all-conference teammates fell short of their average contributions.

"Kejuan and Aaron are pretty much the stars of the team, and other teams are going to try to take them out of the game," said Byrd, who had 20 points and 12 rebounds. "We just have to step up and make some shots when that happens."

Long Beach led, 38-33, at halftime when Artis Gant banked in a three-point shot at the buzzer after an even first half. The 49ers opened the second half with a 13-2 run. They limited Irvine to two field goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half and led, 56-41.

They secured the victory at the line, where they made 14 of 18 free throws in the final 4:42.

"They have so many weapons," Irvine Coach Pat Douglas said. "You take away one player, and someone else picks it up for them."

Long Beach will be making championship-game appearances in consecutive years for the first time since 1977-78. They are 3-4 all-time in the conference title game, with their last victory coming in 1995.

But last year's 78-70 loss to Pacific remains fresh in the minds of this season's team, which has eight seniors who played in that game.

"It always plays back in my head, what would have happened, what could have happened last year, but we have to play for right now," said Ricks, who was four for four from the field Friday night. "We can't sulk over last year. This is a new team. Our record shows that we're a little bit better, and we're going to keep going as far as we want to go."

-- Peter Yoon

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo 81, Cal State Fullerton 56 -- The Titans' all-time leading scorer, senior guard Bobby Brown, was hobbled by an knee injury sustained midway through the first half, and the second-seeded Mustangs took the opportunity to pull away for the semifinal victory.

Brown, who came in averaging 20.6 points, second best in the conference, injured his right knee on a driving layup by Derek Stockalper with slightly less than 12 minutes left in the first half.

The basket gave Cal Poly a 14-13 lead, and Brown limped off on the Mustangs' next offensive possession.

By the time he returned from the locker room about two minutes later, Cal Poly had stretched its advantage to 10.

Brown, one of 13 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, awarded to the nation's top point guard, made only one of 10 shots in the first half, a three-pointer with 3:40 left that cut the deficit to eight. That was the margin heading into the second half, when Cal Poly (19-10) opened with an 11-0 run over the first four minutes.

Brown finished with three-for-15 shooting and 11 points. The third-seeded Titans also experienced their worst shooting performance of the season, making only 21 of 65 shots (32.3%).

Scott Cutley had 20 points and 10 rebounds to lead Fullerton (20-10).

-- Dan Arritt

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