Confident, determined and excited, Long Beach State left home to claim a championship and make a statement.
Demoralized, confused and shaken, the 49ers return wondering how everything went wrong after closing the Big West Conference regular season with two losses, including a 92-75 loss to Nevada Las Vegas on Saturday night in front of 8,665 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The 49ers, alone in first place at the beginning of the week, end the regular season 17-9 overall, 13-5 in conference. Utah State (21-6, 14-4) is the regular-season champion.
Long Beach and New Mexico State (22-8, 13-5) have identical conference records, but the Aggies will be seeded second for the Big West tournament, this week at Las Vegas, because they swept the season series. Long Beach lost at New Mexico State, 73-69, on Thursday.
"I'm really disappointed for our seniors because we were right there to get something they would remember for the rest of their lives," said Coach Seth Greenberg, whose team will play UC Santa Barbara in the tournament Friday.
"But the season isn't over yet. I'm very, very confident in this team's ability to bounce back and play great basketball."
UNLV (11-15, 7-11) played inspired for several reasons.
The game was the first following the resignation of Coach Tim Grgurich Friday and the recent dismissal of forward Kebu Stewart for the rest of the season for accepting athletic shoes from an agent's representative. And if that wasn't enough, it also was senior night at UNLV.
Senior guard Reggie Manuel led the Rebels with 25 points as they shot 63.3% overall from the field and 55.6% from three-point range. Manuel made seven of nine three-pointers and forward Clayton Johnson had 25 points.
"We knew Reggie would be ready to have a special game in his last home game," Greenberg said. "He was the focus of our defense."
A three-pointer by Manuel put the Rebels ahead, 48-36, with 17 minutes 47 seconds remaining. UNLV appeared headed for an easy blowout, but tough defense, sparked by guard Rasul Salahuddin's three steals, got the 49ers back in the game.
Consecutive dunks by center Joe McNaull cut the Rebels' lead to 62-60 with 6:44 to go. However, UNLV quickly went on a 12-2 run to take a 74-62 lead with 3:51 left on a jumper by Manuel.
That pretty much sealed the Rebels' 32nd victory in 41 games against the 49ers. McNaull playing in foul trouble also helped. He scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds, but he fouled out for the second consecutive game.
"It was an emotional night for our kids and they rose to the occasion," Rebel interim Coach Cle Edwards said. "Before, we've had periods where we weren't able to sustain everything. Tonight we did."
Forward Terrance O'Kelley led Long Beach with 18 points. Forward Juaquin Hawkins contributed 17 and Salahuddin had 12 for the 49ers, who shot 52.7% from the field but only 50% from the free-throw line (seven of 13).
UNLV shot 60.7% in the first half and led, 40-34, at halftime. Manuel and Johnson were the hottest Rebels.
Manuel scored his 12 first-half points by making four of five three-pointers. The 49er guards had problems fighting through the Rebel screens, helping Manuel and his teammates make six of nine three-pointers in the half.
Johnson entered the game with 18:00 left and sparked UNLV with 11 points, making five of six field-goal attempts. O'Kelley led Long Beach with 12 points in the half.
"I still think we're going to play our best basketball in March," Greenberg said.