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49ers Out of Their League in Season-Opening Defeat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long Beach State might win the Big West Conference. The 49ers have standout guard James Cotton, a few other talented players and determination. That could be enough.

But that won’t do it against the Arizonas of the world.

The 49ers remain far behind the elite, a point repeated in the Wildcats’ 91-57 Preseason NIT victory before 13,824 Wednesday night at the McKale Center. Arizona started slowly in the teams’ season opener, but eventually overwhelmed Long Beach with its superior size, athleticism and depth.

The 49ers knew what was wrong, but they couldn’t fix it.

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“They wore us down,” forward Juaquin Hawkins said. “They did a great job defending us and they’re a lot bigger. They pushed it into their big guys and we couldn’t do anything about it.”

Arizona Coach Lute Olson agreed.

“Our key was to maintain excellent defensive pressure in the half court,” Olson said. “We made them work on every possession.”

Long Beach took a 7-2 lead on a lob pass to Cotton, who scored a team-high 18 points, from point guard Rasul Salahuddin with 17:20 left in the first half. That was about it for the 49er highlights, with the outcome still undecided.

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The Wildcats raced ahead behind point guard Reggie Geary of Mater Dei and standout forward Michael Dickerson. A three-pointer by Geary with 13:17 to go in the half capped a 12-3 run, gave the Wildcats a 14-10 lead and prompted 49er Coach Seth Greenberg to call timeout.

“The guys were hitting me in the right spot all game,” said Geary, who had 16 points. “I’ve always been a streaky shooter and I was on tonight.”

As was Dickerson. He led Arizona with 19 points as he drove past would-be Long Beach defenders for dunks and layups. He made nine of 13 shots from the field, including all five of his first-half attempts as Arizona took a 48-32 halftime lead.

Greenberg tried to do what he could, mixing up the 49ers’ defense and substituting often. It didn’t help much.

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Geary, unfazed by the 49ers’ defense, passed to Dickerson, forward Ben Davis and center Joe Blair for easy baskets throughout a painfully long second half for the visitors.

Long Beach made five of 13 three-pointers in the first half, but it was forced to take most of those shots because the offense broke down. Long Beach had nine assists and 18 turnovers, not exactly the ratio coaches want.

Salahuddin couldn’t get past Geary with his dribble. One of the best defenders in the Big West, he struggled to keep pace with the stronger Geary. “Reggie did a great job,” Olson said. “Reggie is so alert and so aware of where people are.

“Plus, you can’t leave him open anymore. The biggest difference is his confidence.”

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The 49ers shot 46% in the first half. Exhausted and frustrated, they shot only 26% in the second half and 35% for the game.

“They dropped off by about 20 points and we improved,” Olson said. “If you see a huge drop-off like that, that means we wore them down.”

Geary dictated the game’s tempo. If Long Beach tried to steal some momentum, he just broke down the defense for inside baskets.

Or he took the shot himself, hitting three of four three-pointers. He had seven assists and committed only one turnover.

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Although disappointed, Greenberg isn’t overly worried.

“I’m not going to panic because we lost to Arizona,” Greenberg said. “This is a marathon--not a sprint. We’re going to learn from this and move on.”


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