Joan Bonvicini, the Cal State Long Beach women's basketball coach, wasn't too concerned when her team got off to a sluggish start Friday night in the semifinals of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Championships.
True, it was not a state of affairs that Bonvicini was accustomed to, but she was confident her team would come back.
However, when the 49ers began to weaken and put up ill-conceived shots, Bonvicini was very concerned.
Then when her team broke down in the waning minutes of a close game, when they threw the ball away with wild passes, when Auburn's players sank free throw after free throw, Bonvicini knew that Auburn (31-2) would be playing Louisiana Tech in Sunday's final.
Long Beach lost to Auburn, 68-55, before a crowd of 8,714 at the Tacoma Dome, and ultimately, Bonvicini came to understand how it happened.
Fast starts and scoring surges have been a hallmark of this Long Beach team. But neither was the case for much of the game against a tenacious Auburn team. The Tigers took an early lead and watched as the 49ers struggled to catch up.
Then came a near-disastrous stretch for Auburn in the second half.
The 49ers (28-6) reeled off 11 consecutive points in a frenetic drive that left the Tigers gasping and gave the 49ers a 46-42 lead with 9:10 left to play.
It was a classic Long Beach scenario, set for a stirring 49er comeback.
"We made a very good run in the second half," Bonvicini said. "I thought we'd pull away. We had some turnovers and we took some bad shots. It seemed like every mistake we made, they scored on."
All-American guard Penny Toler, who had only four points in the first half, took control during the surge, scoring seven points and lifting her teammates with her determination.
Toler capped the rally with a driving layin. She was fouled on the play and made the free throw.
The crowd's roar of approval was its recognition of Toler's grit. At last, it seemed, Bonvicini had the home-court advantage she had longed for. Her team would feed on the fan support and race ahead to win.
"I really thought that was going to take us," Bonvicini said.
But that wasn't the start, or end, of it. Auburn's Diann McNeil scored off a steal at 7:15 to tie the game at 46-46. It was tied again at 48-48 and 50-50.
After Auburn went ahead, 58-51, Traci Waites got her fourth foul. McNeil missed the free throw and Long Beach controlled the rebound. Toler took the ball the length of the court to score and bring the 49ers within five.
However, with 1:54 left, two things happened that made the chance for a comeback bleak for Long Beach--Waites fouled out, and Auburn All-American Vickie Orr made both her free throws.
That gave Auburn a 60-53 lead. Long Beach turned the ball over several times after that and literally threw away its chance for a comeback.
"We made some bad decisions," Bonvicini said.
Auburn Coach Joe Ciampi had said that his center, Orr, was going to be limited to playing in spurts of a few minutes. Orr has chronic tendinitis in both her knees, and the condition limited her practices this week.
The platooning never happened. Orr played all but eight minutes.
She scored 13 points. Ruthie Bolton added 18 for Auburn, and McNeil had 16.
Bolton's 11 points in the final six minutes keyed the Tigers' win.
The 49ers' fast break sputtered in the first half as they took too many poor shots and made too many offensive mistakes.
Long Beach shot only 39% from the field in the game.
Waites and Toler were both looking for their pull-up jumpers, their natural shots. But they wouldn't fall. Waites was 5 of 13 and Toler was 2 of 7 in the first half.
And that was was bad news for Long Beach, which expects more offense from the two guards.
At one point in the first half, after Waites missed two shots in a row, Bonvicini shouted from the bench, "I want the ball to go to the hole, not the jumpers!"
Bonvicini said she was concerned that missed long shots would not yield rebounds.
The pair got the message, but no doubt were less than thrilled at what lurked inside for Auburn: the 6-foot-3 Orr, 6-5 Linda Godby and 6-3 Sharon Stewart.
It was rough everywhere. Toler left the game at 10:56, limping to protect her left knee. Long Beach fans looked on anxiously as Toler tested the knee.
She came back in the game on the next possession.
The Tigers had a seven-point lead at one point, and it looked as if they would take that much or more into the locker room at halftime, but the 49ers made a run.
The lead was cut to three at the end of the half when Toler drove the lane but lost control of the ball, and Shameil Coleman picked it up and hit a three-point shot from the right corner at the buzzer, leaving Auburn in front, 29-26.
Cal State Long Beach's Shannon Smith, of Seattle's Franklin High School, had a rooting section 40-persons-strong Friday night, consisting of friends and family members. Smith's mother and two sisters met the team at the Seattle airport and handed out flowers.