Long Beach State forward James Ennis looks to score inside against UC Irvine's… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The Friday blitz started with a quick three-pointer, a basket off a bad pass and then a four-point play that resulted from a foul on another three-point basket.
The game was 9-0 before the seat cushions were warm at Honda Center.
It was Long Beach State versus the interloper Anteaters of UC Irvine — what else did you expect?
Um, actually, you would have expected Long Beach to be leading.
After a fitful first half and a few anxious moments in the second (Irvine led by four near the 14-minute mark) Long Beach went on a season-saving 14-0 run, and held the lead until it was time to flee to the locker room.
The final score, 68-57, put Long Beach State (24-8) into Saturday night's Big West tournament title game.
The 49ers face the winner Cal Poly San Luis Obispo vs. UC Santa Barbara, which played the Friday late game.
"Great teams don't play great ever day," Long Beach Coach Dan Monson said of his team's performance.
Long Beach, after two straight title-game defeats by Santa Barbara, is one victory from earning its first NCAA bid since 2007.
Irvine wasn't supposed to make it this suspenseful, but the Anteaters were obviously invigorated after upsetting second-seeded Cal State Fullerton on Thursday.
"After that big win we had all the confidence in the world coming into this game," Irvine junior forward Michael Wilder said. "We didn't think we were going to lose."
Irvine entered the game only 12-19, but in conference tournaments only the here-and-present counts.
Long Beach swept the season series by a combined 41 points, and Irvine didn't seem to care.
The 49ers have vacated way more NCAA games than Irvine has played in. In fact, Irvine is still looking for its first NCAA trip.
Long Beach looked a bit wobbly playing its second game without senior guard Larry Anderson, out with a sprained right knee.
The first-half basket appeared smaller than a pickle jar. The 49ers shot a middle-class tax bracket (28%), making only nine of 32 attempts.
Long Beach's frontline, at one point, was a collective one for 15.
It was starting to look like a repeat of last year's title-loss performance against Santa Barbara, when numerous inside misses cost top-seeded Long Beach a bid to the NCAA tournament.
"It was way too much deja vu for me," Monson said.
At the half, Monson said he told his team: "It's OK if one or two of you guys are struggling, but we can't have all of us."
Long Beach then settled down and made 13 of 22 shots after intermission.
His team trailing 43-39, James Ennis started the comeback with a three-pointer, followed by another three by Mike Caffey.
T.J. Robinson scored to put Long Beach up, 47-43, and then made a nifty behind-the-back dribble off a rebound that led to a three-point play on a basket and foul shot.
Another Caffey three-pointer, from the baseline corner with 9 minutes 42 seconds left, put Long Beach up by 10.
Senior guard Casper Ware, the Big West player of the year, was steady all night and led all scorers with 22 points.
Wilder and Daman Starring each had 15 points for Irvine.
Ware seemed to suffer a leg injury in the second half but said it was nothing serious.
"It's cramp season for me right now," he said.
Anderson, the Big West defensive player of the year, watched from the bench dressed in a comfortable sweater and slacks.
He did his best to help out but later told Monson, "I can't do this for a living, it's too stressful."
There was still no definitive word as to whether he would try to play in Saturday's title game.
"That's not a question for me," Monson said. "That's a trainer question. I asked this morning and they said he's doing better."
Monson, though, added he was "not going to put his career ahead of tomorrow's game."
UC Santa Barbara 64 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo 52: The No. 3 Gauchos clinched a spot in the title game with a hard-fought semifinal win over their Central Coast rivals.
Senior guard Orlando Johnson led Santa Barbara with 20 points. Santa Barbara (20-9) now seeks its third straight tournament title win over Long Beach.