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.
Utah State defeated Long Beach, 86-73, Saturday night in one semifinal in front of 4,297 at the Lawlor Events Center. In doing so, fourth-seeded Utah State eliminated the top-seeded team.
"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]."
The Aggies improved to 18-14 overall and will play San Jose State today for the conference championship at noon. The winner receives the Big West's automatic NCAA tournament berth. Utah State won the 1988 tournament title.
"This really hurts," said Hawkins, a fifth-year senior. "All I cared about was winning the championship and going back to the [NCAA] tournament."
Long Beach (17-11) defeated Utah State twice during the regular season en route to winning the regular-season championship and earning a first-round bye in the Big West 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 minutes 11 seconds left and Hawkins, a forward, was assessed his fifth foul with 47 seconds to play. Losing their senior leaders deflated the 49ers, they said.
"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 had four assists. Midway through the first half, Salahuddin aggravated a right thumb injury when he collided with an Aggie. He left the game and received treatment for a few minutes, and admitted he wasn't as effective after returning.
"Yeah, it bothered me a little," said Salahuddin, the Big West's leader in steals. "But I just wanted to play."
Aggie forwards Silas Mills and Antwan Smith exploited Long Beach's post defense. Smith converted several layups in the second half on passes from Mills. Mills had 11 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and five steals, and Smith had 15 points and nine rebounds.
"We worked on our [post] game all season, that's been our focus," Smith said. "It's just that it worked better tonight."
Jones made a three-pointer with 13:41 remaining to tie the score at 49-49. His next three-pointer came with 12:40 left, giving Utah State a 52-49 lead. The Aggies wouldn't trail again.
"I thought they executed great and we were a half-second slow," Greenberg said. "And Antwan obviously had a career game."
The Aggies made 54.2% of their field-goal attempts in the second half and 49% for the game. The Aggies made 37 free throws in 48 attempts (77.1%), and made 17 of 20 in the final 3:46.
"We basically won the game at the line," said Jones, who has made 11 of 15 three-pointers in three game this season at the Lawlor Events Center. "We only made like 60% of our free throws during the season, but we're shooting like 80% in the tournament. Everybody is hitting their foul shots."