A long look at Long Beach State

No one would've predicted an NCAA Tournament bid for Long Beach State three weeks into the 2006-07 basketball season. The 49ers dropped four of their first six games – losing to Air Force (69-68), at Southern Cal (79-61), at UCLA (88-58), and at Temple (49-74).

Head coach Larry Reynolds had to be feeling some heat. His first four Long Beach teams had gone 5-22 (2002-03), 6-21 (2003-04), 10-20 (2004-05) and 18-12 (2005-06). Clearly, a 2-4 start in 2006-07 did not bode well for his future with the 49ers.

Reynolds righted the ship, however, guiding Long Beach to 22 wins in its last 25 games. The 49ers have won 11 of their last 12, including the last six in a row. Saturday night they beat Cal-Poly 94-83 in the Big West Conference Tournament's title game, boosting their record to 24-7 and earning the berth opposite Bruce Pearl's Tennessee Vols (22-10) in Round 1 of the NCAA South Regional Friday at Columbus, Ohio.

Down 35-30 at halftime Saturday night, Long Beach exploded to outscore Cal-Poly 64-48 in the second half. The 49ers made 17 of 30 second-half field goals and 25 of 29 second-half free throws in their wild comeback. They had beaten Cal-Irvine 77-63 in the semifinals a night earlier.

In addition to being a red-hot team, Long Beach is a veteran team. The 49ers' top six players are all seniors.

Leading scorer Aaron Nixon, a 6-2 guard, averaged 18.6 points during the regular season and sank a team-high 77 shots from 3-point range. He hit 38.7 percent from beyond the arc. Nixon recorded 29 points and 11 rebounds in the win over Cal-Poly, earning tourney MVP honors in the process.

The 49ers' second-leading scorer is KeJuan Johnson, a 6-4 guard who averaged 15.3 points per game. He hit 55 shots from 3-point range and shot 36.7 percent beyond the arc this season.

Third-leading scorer Sterling Byrd is a 6-6, 215-pound forward who averaged 13.9 points and a team-best 6.7 rebounds per game. He isn't afraid to launch from 3-point range, either, having made 57 of 157 for 36.3 percent.

The fourth-leading scorer is 5-10 point guard Kevin Houston. He averaged 11.7 points per game, leading the team in assists (136) and in 3-point percentage (41.5). He didn't shoot as often as his mates, however, making 44 of 106 from beyond the arc.

The other starter is 6-6, 222-pound forward Dominique Ricks. He averaged just 7.3 points per game but shot 63.3 percent from the floor. He also contributed 5.8 rebounds per outing.

The sixth man is 6-9, 220-pound Mark Dawson, who led the team with 29 blocked shots.

Like Tennessee, Long Beach is a high-scoring outfit. The 49ers led the NCAA in scoring at 83.3 points per game in 2005-06 and ranked among the national leaders by scoring at an 80.3 clip this season. Tennessee averaged 79.7.

Like the Vols, the 49ers were tough on their home floor this season. They went 13-1 at home 9-5 on the road and 3-1 on neutral floors. Tennessee went 16-0 at home, 3-7 on the road and 3-3 on neutral floors.

Like Tennessee, Long Beach likes a fast tempo. The bad news for the Vols is that the 49ers won't be intimidated by UT's fullcourt press. They committed just 7 turnovers in Saturday night's defeat of Cal-Poly.

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