After Loss, Long Beach State Hoping for NIT Bid

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Juaquin Hawkins and Rasul Salahuddin sat with towels covering their faces and tears in their eyes after fouling out in the final moments of a Big West Conference tournament game Saturday night. And as the two senior standouts struggled to compose themselves, Long Beach State finally accepted its time was up as well.

Fourth-seeded Utah State eliminated the top-seeded 49ers, 86-73, in a semifinal game before 4,297 at the Lawlor Events Center.

"I looked up at the scoreboard with about a minute left, and we were down by 11 and [Hawkins] had fouled out and Rasul had fouled out," 49er guard James Cotton said. "Right then I figured Utah State was going to play in the final [today]."

Utah State improved to 18-14 overall and will play San Jose State, a 71-67 winner over UC Irvine, in today's championship game. The winner receives the Big West's automatic NCAA tournament berth. The Aggies won the 1988 tournament title.

Long Beach (17-11) won the regular-season championship, earning a first-round bye in the tournament. The Big West isn't likely to receive an at-large NCAA tournament selection, so Long Beach Coach Seth Greenberg hopes his team will be invited to the NIT.

"We're in a position where we feel we deserve it," Greenberg said. "With winning the regular-season title, we feel we should be there. [The NIT selection committee] is going to have to consider West Coast matchups, so we hope we'll be there."

Cotton and Salahuddin each scored 15 points for Long Beach and Hawkins had 13. Salahuddin, the 49ers' point guard, fouled out with 2:11 left and Hawkins, a forward, was assessed his fifth foul with 47 seconds to play. Losing their senior leaders deflated the 49ers.

"I just don't want it to end like this," Hawkins said. "I want another game, and I don't care where we play."

Guard Justin Jones scored a game-high 23 points for the Aggies, and forward Silas Mills had 11 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and five steals. Forward Antwan Smith had 15 points and nine rebounds.

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