It was a black Sunday for Cal State Long Beach.
With three minutes left in the first half of the Big West Conference tournament championship game at the Long Beach Arena, Coach Joe Harrington got the bad news from Athletic Director Corey Johnson: if the 49ers did not beat third-ranked Nevada Las Vegas, they would be bypassed in favor of UC Santa Barbara for an NCAA tournament bid.
At halftime, with Long Beach behind, 35-33, Harrington told the players what they had to do.
Grim-faced, the 49ers took the court. Three minutes into the second half they had taken a 44-41 lead on a three-point shot by Lucious Harris.
Then Las Vegas went on a run, scoring 15 consecutive points, and from there the Runnin' Rebels cruised to a 92-74 victory.
Harrington, who had been confident that the 49ers would be selected for the NCAA tournament, said he had wanted to know immediately what the team's fate would be.
"This was a big day in my life," Harrington said. "The suspense was killing me."
After the game, the 49ers sat stunned during an awards ceremony, the Las Vegas fans' chant of "Rebels, Rebels" in their ears, watching as the trophy was carried away.
"The first five minutes of the second half we channeled the disappointment into anger," assistant coach Seth Greenberg said as his wife Karen cried on his shoulder. "But you can only play at that emotional pace for so long."
Later, Harrington said, "I'm so proud of this team . . . We're just devastated. It's just so hard to understand. I cannot believe it. I just cannot believe it."
The 49ers are 22-8, their best record in 10 years.
"We had big wins over Purdue and Texas and two over New Mexico State, and we won nine of our last 10 games," Harrington said. "The NCAA stands for student-athletes. My players busted their butts for 200 days and deserve to go to the NCAAs. Four teams (actually three) are going that we beat this year, and that is hard to accept. I don't think that's what the NCAA is all about."
Big West Commissioner Jim Haney also was perplexed by the decision not to select Long Beach.
"This year we probably took the toughest shot yet," Haney said. "I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach and it hurts. A year ago people looked at New Mexico State's schedule as the reason they didn't get in. This year Long Beach played quality people. In every way they deserve to be in the tournament."
Jim Delany, chairman of the tournament selection committee, said that the lateness of the Big West title game--which coincided with the televised tournament field announcement--"played havoc" with the selection process.
"Basically, we felt the Big West should share the burden if anyone shares the burden," Delany said.
But Las Vegas may well have been the 49ers biggest problem. "There are a couple of ways to look at it," said New Mexico State Coach Neil McCarthy, whose team was beaten by Long Beach in the tournament semifinals. The Aggies will join Nevada Las Vegas and UC Santa Barbara in the NCAA field.
"Santa Barbara lost to us twice but beat Vegas. Long Beach beat us two of three but didn't beat Vegas. Vegas seems to be the common denominator.
"They got four big wins. They just don't have one over Vegas."
But, he added, "I think Long Beach and Santa Barbara are both deserving to go."
Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian said he thought Long Beach's plight would give the 49ers incentive in the second half. But the Rebels (29-5) were too good.
"Just the fact that our kids came out and played that way makes me extra proud," Tarkanian said. "They didn't have to have this game, but they have so much pride. The game was a great test of character. It meant nothing to us because we had already secured the No. 1 seeding for the NCAAs."
Despite shooting only 34% from the field and committing seven turnovers, the 49ers had slim leads much of the first half.
Guard Tyrone Mitchell, who had not made a turnover in the first two games of the tournament, made three in the first seven minutes.
The Rebels led at the half even though Larry Johnson, their top scorer, had only three points.
After Harris' three-pointer had put the 49ers ahead, 44-41, Las Vegas went on a 20-3 run to lead, 61-47.
Center David Butler led Las Vegas with 19 points, Greg Anthony had 18, Augmon 16, Hunt 15 and Johnson 11.
A bid to the National Invitation Tournament was little salve. The 49ers travel to Arizona State for a Friday first-round game.
"We're still going in the right direction," Harrington said. "We can turn this disappointment inside out and win the NIT. But it's not the big dance, what you strive for. I just feel bad for those young men in the locker room."
UC Santa Barbara defeated the 49ers twice.
"They lost to Irvine and Pacific at home this year," Harrington said. "They didn't take care of business at the end of last season like we did. You just wonder how this could happen. I'm totally befuddled."
Times staff writer Robyn Norwood contributed to this story.