LAWRENCE, Kan. -- With his team leading Long Beach State by 19 points midway through the first half Tuesday, Kansas coach Bill Self issued a warning to the Jayhawks as they huddled during a timeout.
“Guys,” Self screamed, “they’re not going away. They’re not scared.”
Nor should they have been.
Playing against top-25 caliber opponents in historic venues such as Allen Fieldhouse has become the norm for the 49ers, who won at then-No. 9 Pittsburgh last month before hitting the road for games against Louisville, San Diego State, Kansas and even a tough outpost like Montana. Up next? Saturday's trip to North Carolina. Shortly thereafter? A trip to the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, where they'll open with No. 8 Xavier.
On Tuesday, senior-laden Long Beach State kept its poise and whittled KU's 19-point lead to four late in the second half before eventually falling 88-80.
“These guys have been to [Duke’s] Cameron Indoor Stadium,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said. “[Saturday] will be their second time to North Carolina. They’ve been to Syracuse, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. In their four years they have been to pretty much every venue in the country besides this one.
“So we weren’t happy just to be here. We expected to win today and we didn’t get it done.”
Frustrating as Tuesday’s loss might have been, the experience should definitely pay dividends in the coming months. Long Beach will be the favorite to win the Big West Conference, with only UC Santa Barbara as a serious challenger. If the 49ers don’t earn an NCAA tournament berth automatically (they've lost in the conference tournament final each of the past two seasons), their resume should definitely catch the attention of the selection committee when it’s time to hand out at-large bids.
Long Beach State has earned just one NCAA tournament berth (2007) since 1995.
“Our goal is to try to get into a conversation for an at-large bid,” Monson said. “We know we’ve got to do more than just win at Pittsburgh. We know we’re a good team. We want to be a great team. We’ve got to take that next step.”
The 49ers certainly had some bright moments against Kansas. They forced 22 Jayhawks turnovers -- which led to 31 points -- and outscored Self’s squad 41-37 in the second half.
Self said he could sense how confident the 49ers were throughout the game.
“You watch them play against Pittsburgh ... they expected to win against Pitt,” Self said. “You watch them play against Louisville ... Louisville got off to a good start. After that they played them even or maybe a little better. After our good start they played us even or a little better.”
Long Beach trailed just 84-80 after James Ennis swished a 3-pointer with 47 seconds remaining. But Kansas closed out the game by making four consecutive free throws.
“A year or two [ago], we’d have gotten blown out in a game like this,” guard Larry Anderson said. “But we’re not intimidated anymore. We know we can play with these teams.”
“We’re not as good as Kansas right now,” Monson said. “But I think we can be in March, if we have the [opportunity] to get on a neutral court with some of these teams. That’s why you play some of these types of teams ... so you know where your team is at. We’ve got work to do.”
Long Beach State knows it needs to regroup in a hurry. The 49ers travel to Chapel Hill for the second consecutive year Saturday. Last season the Tar Heels eked out a 96-91 victory.
Monson said his team needs to avoid getting off to the type of poor start that made things difficult in losses to Louisville and Kansas. The Jayhawks jumped out to a 16-4 lead Tuesday and eventually stretched the cushion to 34-15.
“We’ve got to get our mindset ready to go attack people and not spend the first 10 trying to get our legs under us,” Monson said. “I think [North Carolina is] very similar [to Kansas], but more explosive offensively.
“[We gave] up 51 [points] today in the first half. It could be 65 on Saturday. We’ve just got to shore some things up and make people have to score over us. We’ve got to contest shots better and rebound the ball a little bit better to have a chance in some of these games.”
Even after the loss to Kansas, Long Beach State’s players seemed confident about their chances this weekend.
“We’ll have to play well,” Anderson said. “But we think we can win the game.”
Self, whose team improved to 6-2, believes the 49ers have a chance. Not just to beat North Carolina, but to end up in the NCAA tournament as well.
“I would think Carolina would be a big favorite to win the game,” Self said. “But they can give them problems because their wings are so fast. They’re certainly not scared. [Monson’s] done a great job with them. They’d be a fun team to coach because they’re so athletic. I can’t imagine there being a better team in their league.”