With its best player slowed by a sore back and its second-best player saddled with four fouls early in the second half, Cal State Fullerton had little left to challenge Cal State Long Beach and lost to the 49ers, 77-71, Friday night in the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament at Long Beach Arena.
Titan forward Agee Ward, who leads the Titans with an 18.4-point average, did not practice all week because of muscle spasms, played only 12 minutes and had only eight points.
Guard Bruce Bowen picked up his fourth foul with 16 minutes 40 seconds remaining and still managed to score 19 points without fouling out.
But Bowen, Fullerton's best defender, couldn't guard the 49ers' leading scorer, Lucious Harris, for much of the second half, and Harris took advantage by scoring a team-high 20 points.
Long Beach will play New Mexico State at 9 tonight.
"It hurt a whole lot not having Agee at full strength," Titan guard Joe Small said. "You could tell he was rusty and his timing was off, but he showed a lot of heart playing like that."
Said Fullerton Coach John Sneed: "With a healthy Agee, it might have been a different game. I admire him for his effort. He was in a lot of pain."
Still, the Titans almost made it a painful evening for the 49ers.
Fullerton had trimmed an 11-point, second-half deficit to two, 68-66, on Bowen's steal and basket with 3:05 remaining.
The Titans had a chance to tie after Long Beach's Harris missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw situation with 2:34 left.
But Fullerton point guard Aaron Sunderland lost possession of a pass from Ward and turned the ball over with two minutes left.
Harris was fouled on the steal and made both free throws for a 70-66 lead. Bowen countered with a free throw with 1:44 left that made it 70-67, but Long Beach forward Bryon Russell made a key inside jumper with 1:06 left to put the 49ers ahead, 72-67.
Small's jumper with 52 seconds left brought Fullerton to within 72-69, but the 49ers (18-11) made four of five free throws in the final 39 seconds to hold off the Titans (12-16).
Russell and point guard Bobby Sears each added 19 points for Long Beach, with Sears making five of seven shots from three-point range, and Chris Tower had 13 points. The 49ers shot 50% from the field in the game, including 53.8% in the second half, and made nine of 16 three-pointers.
Sunderland finished with 20 points for the Titans, who lost despite outrebounding the 49ers, 41-25.
"That's probably the best Sears has shot all year," Sneed said. "You've got to give Long Beach credit. They did a good job on us defensively and they shot the ball extremely well."
The game was most likely John Sneed's last as Fullerton's coach. Sneed's three-year contract expires at the end of this month, and Titan Athletic Director Bill Shumard has maintained in recent weeks that Sneed's situation will be evaluated until the end of the season.
But there have been indications Sneed's contract won't be renewed after four seasons, during which Fullerton went 55-59 and won only two of six Big West Tournament games.
The school placed a classified ad in the Feb. 12 issue of the NCAA News, seeking applications for head and assistant coaches in all sports, but several people in the Fullerton athletic department believed the school was merely camouflaging a preliminary search for a basketball coach.
Furthermore, Shumard spent last Friday night at a California Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament game between Cal State Bakersfield and UC Riverside, played at Riverside City College.
Shumard said he attended the game with Titan Associate Athletic Director Larry Zucker, who used to work at Bakersfield, to "enjoy some good basketball and see a couple of athletic directors who are good friends."
But it's no coincidence that Bakersfield is coached by the highly successful Pat Douglass, who has been mentioned prominently as a possible replacement for Sneed, and Riverside is coached by John Masi, who was a candidate for the Fullerton job when Sneed was hired in 1989.
Some believe Shumard was there to evaluate Douglass, who has guided Bakersfield to five consecutive NCAA Division II tournament appearances, and possibly Masi.
Finally, one Fullerton assistant coach has applied for a high school coaching job in Orange County, another sign that the staff is not expecting to return.
"I haven't heard anything yet, but they'll probably make a decision sometime next week," Small said about Sneed's status as coach. "Whatever happens, it will probably be best for both sides."
Friday, Long Beach took a 32-29 halftime lead on the strength of Sears' 12 points, all of which came on three-point shots, and Harris' nine.
Fullerton's defensive strategy was apparent from the outset. The Titans, intent on not letting the 49ers burn them from inside--Russell scored 32 points against them the last time the teams met--collapsed their guards on the 49ers every time the ball went inside.
The double and triple teams made it difficult for Long Beach to score from inside--Russell had only five first-half points--but the 49ers exploited Fullerton's perimeter defense, hitting three three-pointers in the first eight minutes en route to a 17-6 lead.
Then Sneed decided to make an offensive adjustment. With Ward limited to four minutes in the first half, it was obvious Fullerton wasn't going to have much inside firepower.
Ward, who did not practice this week and hasn't played a game in almost two weeks, was apparently feeling fit to play, but Sneed still decided to pull him and spread the Titans out into a four-corner set, with guards penetrating through the middle and either shooting or passing off.
That sparked the Titans' 14-2 run, which gave Fullerton a 20-19 lead with 6 minutes 54 seconds remaining in the first half. Long Beach didn't help itself by turning the ball over on three consecutive possessions, all of which led to Titan fast-break baskets, during the Titan run.
The 49ers went almost three minutes without scoring until Harris hit two free throws to put Long Beach back ahead, 21-20, with 6:31 left. Tower then hit a three-pointer from the top of the key that made it 24-20.
Moments later, with the score tied at 26, Sears and Fullerton's J.D. Green exchanged three-pointers. But Sears had the final say in the first half, hitting a three-pointer from the left corner with 17 seconds left that gave Long Beach its three-point halftime cushion.
Sunderland scored 12 first-half points for Fullerton, and Bowen added six points, two assists and three steals.