It didn't seem to matter who Cal State Long Beach would play in the opening round of the NCAA tournament when the final buzzer sounded at the Big West tournament Sunday. Simply getting there for the first time since 1977 seemed enough.
In its best defensive effort since it beat then-No. 1 Kansas, Long Beach earned a trip to the West Regional in Salt Lake City and a date with the Big Ten's Illinois on Thursday with a 70-62 victory over regular-season champion New Mexico State before 4,543 at the Long Beach Arena.
As the team celebrated at mid-court, the 49ers raised the championship trophy high above their heads and scores of gold "Beach" towels waved wildly in the air.
"The most important thing is to enjoy the moment," said third-year Coach Seth Greenberg, his voice nearly gone from three days of directing an injury-plagued team to another upset during a roller-coaster season.
"We'll talk to the kids later about not being satisfied with where we are at this point," he said.
"The first time we beat Las Vegas and New Mexico State in the regular season it brought a lot of factions together. In the middle of the season we lost our pizazz, but this will bring a whole bunch of factions in the city together and help in overcoming. . . . the financial problems we've had."
As it did in its first two tournament games, the 49ers found another way to win, this time slowing New Mexico State guard Sam Crawford to a crawl by cutting off his penetration to the basket.
Unable to get inside, Crawford began shooting erratic three-pointers. He missed all eight of his shots from three-point range and the Aggies, who were seeded seventh in the East Regional and will play Nebraska on Friday at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, failed to make one of their 12 long-range attempts. Crawford, the nation's assist leader, had only four.
Barely 12 hours earlier, Long Beach (22-9) upset 19th-ranked Nevada Las Vegas, 79-77, on a last second shot by a seldom-used back-up center, Terrance O'Kelley. The loss ended up knocking the Runnin' Rebels out of an NCAA berth.
Playing without center Chris Tower because of a stress fracture in his left foot, Long Beach committed 13 turnovers, but shot 54.9% Sunday. Guard Lucious Harris, the tournament's most valuable player, scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
"This group is not always pretty," Greenberg said. "But they find a way to succeed."
After an 8-0 start to the Big West season, Long Beach finished the regular season 8-8 and limped into the Big West Tournament. The 64-49 victory at Kansas on Jan. 25 was sandwiched between a 95-61 embarrassment at Virginia Commonwealth and a 68-59 home loss to UC Santa Barbara.
The low point came two weeks ago, when the 49ers lost in overtime in a nonconference game at Cal State Northridge, 81-78.
"That really hurt us," Jeff Rogers said. "We had beaten some big teams, and then to lose to a team we were supposed to blow out . . . that hurt."
Last week, Harris, suffering from a hip pointer and a sore left wrist, predicted that Long Beach would have to win the Big West Tournament title to get an NCAA bid and, although he didn't tell the team, Greenberg confided that he had made inquiries with National Invitation Tournament personnel.
That turned out to be unnecessary, as Long Beach, which missed its first six shots, got a three-pointer from forward Rod Hannibal to go ahead for good, 9-8, with 12:39 to play in the first half.
The 49ers extended that lead to as many as seven points before intermission.
The Aggies (25-7) used a late run during the first half and a steal and a dunk by Reggie Ware to open the second and cut the 49ers' lead to 33-32.
Hannibal, an all-tournament choice along with Russell, made one basket and Russell added another. After two free throws by New Mexico State's Marc Thompson, Hannibal made a three-point shot and another basket and Long Beach led, 42-34.
Harris punctuated the victory with a breakaway dunk with 28 seconds to play.
"Everyone wanted to go to the NCAA tournament, and that's all we talked about all week," Harris said. "Losing those games earlier in the season, after winning some big ones, made us look bad."
Long Beach came close to going to the NCAA tournament during the 1989-90 season, Harris' freshman year, when it lost to Las Vegas, 92-74, in the Big West championship game. But NCAA officials snubbed their 23-9 record and sent them off to the NIT.
"My first year I didn't know what was going on," Harris said of the snub. "But after four years here, man, this is the sweetest way to go out."