After almost a full season of pratfalls, infighting and unfulfilled expectations, the Long Beach State men’s basketball team has turned a corner. Long Beach is playing its best basketball since, well, before anyone in 49er-land ever heard of Wayne Morgan.
Where the road goes from here is still unclear. But the trip is a lot more fun these days.
“We really needed something good to start happening,” said Brian Yankelevitz, a forward and co-captain. “Everybody stayed together during the tough times and we kept playing hard. That’s why we’re doing this now.”
The 49ers are among the Big West Conference’s hottest teams, having won at least three games for the first time this season. Their current run has put them in second place in the Western Division with a 10-12 record, 6-6 in the conference.
Long Beach ended a four-game conference road losing streak with victories over Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and UC Santa Barbara. In doing so, Long Beach, which began the trip 1-9 away from the Pyramid, tripled its number of road victories.
To some, this might not seem like much to write home about. But just try convincing Morgan, the 49ers’ first-year head coach.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in the last few weeks, I think you can see that,” Morgan said. “We’re communicating better and we’re executing better.
“I think the players are getting a good understanding of what I want them to do. We’re doing a lot of things now that we just weren’t doing before.”
There are many reasons for the improvement, most notably that Morgan and his players are familiar with each other. Also, one recent not-so-pleasant event helped to spur the 49ers into action, several players say.
On Jan. 30, New Mexico State routed Long Beach, 84-64, at Las Cruces. Long Beach played perhaps its worst game of the season that night.
Morgan noticed too. He blasted his team at halftime, a tirade so loud that reporters in the media room understood every word.
Many of Morgan’s charges weren’t particularly fond of him before that night. If the 49ers were going to go in the tank for good, that was going to be the time. But it didn’t happen.
“We all made a promise to stick together and support each other,” Yankelevitz said. “We’ve had a lot of things happen--but we’re not going to let each other down.”
Morgan’s blast made the 49ers angry, and they’ve directed those feelings to the court.
Despite losing its next game at North Texas, Long Beach played well for most of the game. Long Beach lost its next game, in overtime, to Nevada at the Pyramid, but again played well.
Then the 49ers put it together.
Long Beach routed visiting Utah State, 71-59, Feb. 9. Utah State leads the Eastern Division, so the victory is about as good as it gets in Big West territory.
Defeated and impressed, Aggie Coach Larry Eustachy wouldn’t shut up about the 49ers.
“They’re really, really good,” Eustachy said. “They just totally took us apart.
“We couldn’t do what we wanted to against them. I know they’ve struggled, but you sure couldn’t tell against us.”
Then came the trip to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara last week. Neither opponent has a winning record, but Long Beach has been so bad on the road that any victory is reason to celebrate.
Long Beach defeated Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 68-67, on a three-pointer by guard Brandon Titus as time expired and breezed past Santa Barbara, 85-77.
“That’s a very good team,” Mustang Coach Jeff Schneider said. “They’ve got a lot of talent.”
And the streak should continue. UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton are coming up this week at home.
Double trouble: Guards Titus and James Cotton are the Big West’s highest-scoring tandem, averaging 40 points per game.
Cotton leads the conference with an average of 24 points and Titus averages 16. How good have they been?
“They’re super,” Santa Barbara Coach Jerry Pimm said. “Cotton and Titus really make [Long Beach] go. Cotton is such a good shooter and Titus can break you down so well.
“They were super against us the whole game. We just couldn’t do anything to stop them.”
Cotton was selected Big West player of the week (Feb. 10-16) for the second time this season. He averaged 28.5 points and 8.5 rebounds as Long Beach went 2-0. Cotton also was selected player of the week Dec. 2.
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Here’s a look at key games this week for Long Beach State:
* Men’s basketball against Cal State Fullerton, 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pyramid. The Titans defeated the 49ers, 78-75, Jan. 13 at Titan Gym.
* Baseball against USC, 4:05 p.m. Sunday at Blair Field. After playing a series two weeks ago, USC and Long Beach meet again in the Long Beach Baseball Classic. Mississippi and Notre Dame also are scheduled to participate in the event, which begins Friday at Blair Field.