49ers not only lose to Rebels but surrender berth in NCAA

LONG BEACH, Calif. - Cal State Long Beach was like a fighter knocked out in the last seconds of the final round after leading on all cards.

Entering Sunday's Big West Conference tournament final, the 49ers believed they had wrapped up a berth in the NCAA show after upsetting New Mexico State Saturday night.

Wrong. Very Wrong.

The partial invitation was ripped away and given to UC Santa Barbara instead after the third-ranked UNLV Rebels blew past coach Joe Harrington's team 92-74 before 9,607 in the Long Beach Arena to win the conference championship. It was the sixth time in eight years that the Rebels have captured the league tournament.

UNLV will play Arkansas-Little Rock in the opening round of the NCAA event Thursday in Salt Lake City. The 29-5 Rebels are the No. 1 seed in the West for the second time in four years. If they win their first-round game, they will play the winner of the Ohio State-Providence contest on Saturday.

"First of all, I'm very happy to win the tournament," UNLV Coach Jerry Takanian said. "I really wasn't into the game in the first half. We didn't play that well, but for the first time in my college career, this game really didn't mean anything."

"We came out in the second half and we really played hard. We got after them. With four minutes left in the first half, I heard we were the top seed. I didn't know until the half that Long Beach had to win to get in. It didn't really matter to our kids. They said it was tournament time and it was time to play hard."

UNLV only led 35-33 at the half, but got serious in the second after solving a junk defense against tournament MVP Larry Johnson. The 49ers employed a two-man zone on the junior, while having another player chase Anderson Hunt all over the court.

That left Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon wide open for most of the game. Although the pair didn't take advantage of it in the first half, they certainly did in the second. The Rebels went on a 15-0 run early in the second to take a 61-45 advantage they would never relinquish, and sent the dejected 49ers to the bench realizing the NCAA dream was over.

"My reaction to the NCAA decision is I'm devastated but I can handle it," Harrington said. "I'm mostly disappointed for my players. I thought we were already in after Santa Barbara lost to Pacific. We knew at halftime we would have to win."

"But that's tough against a multi-talented team like Vegas. They keep coming after you and coming after you until they wear you down. I thought we did a great job against Johnson, they made us pay for that defense later on. We had to play man and they just pulled away from us."

David Butler led a very balanced offensive attack for UNLV with 19 points. He also yanked down nine rebounds. Anthony finished with 18 points, Augmon 16, Hunt 15 and Johnson 11. He also led the way on the boards with 15.

Freshman Lucious Harris paced the 22-8 49ers with 22 points. Mike Masucci came off the bench to score 14, while Tyrone Mitchell finished with 13. Long Beach, which had its nine-game winning streak snapped, can only turn its attention to the NIT and try to do well in that event.

"I can't believe Long Beach didn't make it," Tarkanian said. "I didn't want to get (Santa Barbara Coach) Jerry (Pimm) mad at me, but I honestly feel the 49ers deserve to go. They beat quality teams like Purdue and Texas, while Santa Barbara lost to Irvine and Pacific twice."

"But don't start saying I'm blasting the tournament committee because I've got enough problems without taking up Long Beach State's. We're very happy to be the top seed. Arkansas-Little Rock used to be pretty tough. I was hoping we'd play somebody like Lehigh."

Tarkanian couldn't believe the comment from Jim Delany, chairman of the NCAA's basketball tournament selection committee that was crossed out on the quote sheet. It said: "If Long Beach State upsets UNLV, maybe UNLV should forfeit its number-one seed."

"He said that?" Tarkanian asked in high-pitched tone. "If he said that, then that would be real disappointing. Who would they make the top seed, Arizona? All we did was beat them and play a much tougher schedule. That's absolutely incredible if that's true."

The Rebels have won five straight and 15 of their last 16. UNLV has played 10 of the 64 teams in the NCAA event. Should the Rebels advance to the second round in Oakland, Calif., they would play Louisville and then Arizona if those top seeds advance as expected.

The Rebels already have beaten those teams this year in the Thomas and Mack Center. Tarkanian is pleased with the way the bracket broke down.

"Overall I'm happy with the way things worked out," he said. "We're playing very well in stretches, but we're still not where I would like us to be. We have a lot of work ahead of us. It's tough to put six good games together."

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