Long Beach State guard Casper Ware drives for a layup against UC Santa Barbara's… (Alex Gallardo / Associated…)
Casper Ware has said for four years you can't consider him a truly great college guard unless he leads his team to the NCAA tournament.
Consider him, finally, truly great.
Ware conducted his own senior Saturday night at the Honda Center, scoring 33 points in leading Long Beach State to a 77-64 win over UC Santa Barbara.
The 49ers (25-8) avenged consecutive Big West tournament title-game defeats to the Gauchos to win the conference's automatic NCAA berth.
Long Beach fans rushed the court to the band blast of its theme song, "Jesus Christ Superstar," to celebrate the school's first NCAA bid since 2007.
"I've been trying to get there for three years," Ware said afterward. "I finally got there the fourth time."
The 49ers now carry the torch for the Southland into next week's tournament.
With senior teammate Larry Anderson sitting out his third straight game with a sprained right knee, Ware and fellow seniors Eugene Phelps and T.J. Robinson completed the journey for one of the school's most successful classes.
Ware, the two-time Big West player of the year, wasn't about to let this become a repeat of last year, when Santa Barbara won the title-game bid after being swept by Long Beach during the regular season.
"I knew I had to be more of a leader with Larry out," Ware said of the injury to Anderson. "I had to take it upon myself not to let my team lose."
The Honda Center crowd of 7,564 enjoyed a high-energy game in which you could almost feel what was at stake.
The game was tied at 41-all when Ware scored 13 points on an 18-5 run that ended with a 13-point lead.
"He had a look and it was contagious," Long Beach Coach Dan Monson said of his star guard.
Ware made three straight three-point baskets in less than two minutes.
He was fouled by Jaime Serna on the third make, with 12:41 left, sliding backward on his pants as his high-arc shot swished through the net.
The play electrified 49ers fans and seemed to put a charge in the players, too.
Santa Barbara tried to stay connected to the game, cutting the lead to 51-46, before Robinson was fouled on a driving layup and made his free throw to complete the three-point play.
Ware, for good measure, made another three-pointer with 11 minutes left.
Ware hit eight of his 16 three-point attempts and also added six assists and three rebounds.
He left the game to raucous roars with 1:38 left and was bearhugged by Monson near the bench.
Ware was named the tournament's most valuable player, but he did get some help. James Ennis had 15 points, with Phelps and Peter Pappageorge each scoring eight.
"They're a very good basketball team that we had no answer for three times this year," Santa Barbara Coach Bob Williams said.
Williams said he was amazed at the speed at which Long Beach turns rebounds and turnovers into points.
"They're shot out of a cannon," Williams said.
Senior stars Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally each had 17 points to lead Santa Barbara.
The Gauchos (20-12) had won seven straight Big West tournament games before Saturday's loss, three short of the record held by Nevada Las Vegas.