After playing poorly while splitting two regular-season games against the Trojans, the 49ers put together a solid performance in the NCAA West Regional semifinal to defeat USC, 75-72, in front of 4,624 fans in Pauley Pavilion.
It wasn't the 49ers' best performance of the season, mind you, but it was much better than Long Beach's earlier efforts against USC this season and good enough to earn a berth in Saturday's West Regional final opposite Georgia, which defeated UCLA, 78-42, in the first game Thursday night.
Long Beach, which played the final four minutes without starting guards Roslind Boger and Jackie White, who both had fouled out, had to hold off a furious Trojan rally in the final six minutes to improve its record to 28-2.
The two players who replaced the starting guards, Missy Rand and Margaret Mohr, played a big part in the 49ers' victory. Mohr made three free throws and Rand added two, all in the bonus situation, in the final 3:20 to stave off USC's charge.
The Trojans had cut Long Beach's 67-51 lead with 6:10 to play to four points, 72-68, with 1:08 left. Rand then made her free throws to give the 49ers a six-point cushion.
USC came back on Cheryl Miller's jump shot with 33 seconds left and, after a Long Beach turnover, Holly Ford scored on a follow shot with 10 seconds remaining to pull the Trojans within two, 74-72. But Mohr was fouled with one second to go, and her free throw nullified any chance of a USC comeback.
Senior forward Kirsten Cummings led the 49ers with 20 points, while White and forward Carol Brandt, in an excellent performance off the bench, each added 14. Cindy Brown had 13.
Miller led all scorers with 25 points, but this will be the first time in her USC career that she won't be making a trip to the NCAA's Final Four. The Trojans had defeated Long Beach in each of the past two West Regional finals on their way to consecutive national championships.
Long Beach shot extremely well Thursday night, hitting on 32 of 53 shots for 60%. The 49ers also outrebounded the Trojans, 41-35. USC made only 28% of its shots in the first half and finished the game at 41% (30 of 73).
"This was our game," Long Beach Coach Joan Bonvicini said. "We had no problems getting started this time. We've been down this road before, but we're gonna make it this time."
The 49ers hit 9 of their first 11 shots in the first seven minutes and scored 16 unanswered points to take a 22-6 lead.
The situation appeared even brighter for the 49ers when Miller picked up her third personal foul and came out of the game with 8:43 remaining in the first half. Miller, however, didn't foul out.
The Trojans, without their leading scorer and rebounder, seemed disoriented on offense, and Long Beach took advantage of several USC turnovers to score six straight points for a 31-8 lead.
Trojan Coach Linda Sharp then gambled by sending Miller back into the game with 6:17 left in the half, and the move paid off. USC went on a 9-2 run to pull within 15 points, 33-18, with guard Yolanda Fletcher scoring eight of the points. Fletcher finished with 20 points.