They have the swagger of a winner, the record to back it up and they're rolling at the right time.
Long Beach (15-6, 11-3 in conference) has won eight consecutive games--all in conference. This is the 49ers' longest streak overall since winning nine in a row during the 1989-90 season. They are a half-game behind Utah State, which won, 75-63, at New Mexico State.
The streak is the longest in conference play since the 49ers, then coached by Lute Olson, were 12-0 in conference during the 1973-74 season. What's more, Long Beach, which always has problems against the Gauchos, swept the season series for the first time since 1982-83.
"This is one of the most patient Long Beach teams I've seen," said Gaucho Coach Jerry Pimm, whose team dropped to 11-11, 6-8.
"They read defenses very well and they don't have to rely on pushing the ball to beat you."
Point guard Tye Mays has been one of the recent keys, and he played his best game of the season. With a slew of NBA scouts in the Pyramid stands, Mays, a senior, set career highs with 16 points, nine rebounds and he had four assists.
"I feel great," Mays said. "I'm playing with confidence and I'm comfortable out there."
Center Joe McNaull is the biggest reason for the streak, and he scored 12 of his 13 points in the second half as Long Beach broke the game open. The conference field-goal percentage leader, McNaull made six of nine attempts and blocked three shots.
"They were taking the ball at me strong (in the first half), and I think that kind of wore me down," McNaull said. "In the second half, I just came out with the attitude that I was going to play hard and good things were going to happen."
Long Beach led for most of the first half, but Santa Barbara appeared to increase its intensity after halftime. A jumper by forward Wayne Butts gave the Gauchos their second lead of the game, 36-35, with 18 minutes 23 seconds left.
Then the 49ers got serious.
The 49ers used a 15-0 run over 5:00 of the second half to take a 54-39 lead with 9:44 remaining. Guard Rasul Salahuddin capped the impressive stretch with a steal and layup, and completed a three-point play with a free throw after being fouled by guard Phillip Turner.
Long Beach led by as many as 21 three times in the second half.
"I thought we were awesome defensively in the second half," Coach Seth Greenberg said. "We were getting to balls and knocking them down."
Long Beach limited Santa Barbara to 36.7% field-goal shooting and shot 53.7% to 57.7% in the second half. Forward Allen Bakir scored 10 points and was the only Gaucho in double figures.
McNaull played only 8:00 in the first half because of foul trouble and scored one point. Still, the 49ers led, 35-32, at halftime.
Mays scored eight points in the half to lead Long Beach. His jumper with 6:26 left gave the 49ers their biggest lead to that point, 30-18.
The 49ers, playing some of their best defense, appeared poised to blow the game open. But Pimm went to his bench, and forwards Duane Carter and Bill Barry gave the Gauchos a big lift.
Carter scored all of his points, nine, in only 10 first-half minutes and Barry's three-pointer with 2:08 left cut the 49ers' lead to 32-29. They keyed a 14-5 run to close the half.
But that was about as good as it got for the Gauchos.
"This all feels great," forward Juaquin Hawkins said, "but the season isn't over yet."