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LBSU MBB Outlasts UC Davis 74-70 to Advance to NCAA Tournament

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The Long Beach State Men’s Basketball team (21-14, 10-10) defeated the UC Davis Aggies (20-13, 14-6) 74-70 to win the 2024 Hercules Tires Big West Men’s Basketball Tournament on Saturday, March 16 at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nv. With the win, they advanced to the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament for the first time since 2012.

UC Davis and Long Beach State split the season series, with each team obtaining one win. UC Davis came out on top in their last matchup against Long Beach, 88-78. UC Davis is led by exceptional guard play from senior guard Elijah Pepper, junior guard Ty Johnson and senior guard Kane Milling. Pepper, named Big West Player of the Year, averaged 20.5 points per game for the season. Senior guard Marcus Tsohonis is the leading scorer for Long Beach State averaging 17.6 points per game this season.

The start of the game was a defensive stalemate, with no points scored by either team in the first four minutes. UC Davis junior forward Niko Rocak secured an offensive rebound after the Aggies’ first miss, passing it to junior guard Ty Johnson, who missed another shot attempt but got his own rebound. The possession ended with no points, with a Pepper three going off-target. 

The tough defense continued, leading to low-percentage shots coming from the team’s top scorers. Pepper started 0-4 from the field for Davis, and Tsohonis started 0-3 for Long Beach. Long Beach junior forward Aboubacar Traore was the first to break the seal off the lid, with a strong dunk in transition. It did not take long for UC Davis to answer with their own points, coming from a pull jumper by Johnson. Tsohonis got things going by first assisting a bucket by junior forward Lassina Traore. On the ensuing possession, Tsohonis got his first points of the night via a jumper close to the basket. 

Long Beach got out to a 15-5 lead, but the Aggies responded strongly. Pepper got his first bucket of the night from a layup in transition off a great outlet pass by Johnson. Pepper then scored the next five points of the game, two from the free throw line, followed by a slick stepback three-pointer to tie it up for the Aggies at 15-15. Johnson scored a layup to give UC Davis their first lead of the night, which forced a Long Beach State timeout. 

Davis did not relinquish the lead for the rest of the half, with better production coming from their guards. Milling grabbed a defensive rebound and exploded across the court for a coast-to-coast layup. After being down as much as 10, Davis led by eight in the first half, with Pepper finding success slashing into the paint for tough layups.

Despite the slow start, Tsohonis found a way to score, connecting on three out of six three-pointers in the half. Tsohonis led The Beach with 15 points at halftime, with Johnson and Pepper recording 11 and 10 points, respectively, for UC Davis. UC Davis led at the half, 32-27.

Lassina Traore was the hot hand coming out of halftime, scoring nine points in the first five minutes for LBSU. He was dominant in the paint, backing down his opponent and getting strong buckets inside. But even with this surge on offense, Pepper kept up the firepower from behind the arc, popping a three from the top of the key to make the lead 41-33. 

In a post-game press conference, Lassina Traore commented on his dominance in the paint.  

“At halftime my teammates gave me confidence,” Lassina said. “They said the Davis big men can’t keep up with me. I know I’m capable of taking over. I knew they couldn’t stop me so I kept going and going.”

Lassina’s dominance continued, single-handedly helping to claw the lead down to just one point. His post-work continued to terrorize the Aggie defense, using spin moves to create separation from UC Davis junior forward Francesco Borra. Lassina Traore’s tenacity on the glass was also present, adding five offensive rebounds to his name.

The lead switched over to The Beach with sophomore guard AJ George sinking a three from the corner, making the score 57-54. Second-chance points were huge for Long Beach, with their next two scores coming from offensive rebounds from Lassina Traore and Tsohonis. Tsohonis put his own rebound back in to extend the Beach lead to six, their biggest since the first ten minutes of the game. 

Johnson remained the only consistent part of the Aggie offense, putting up 19 in the second half. He found repeated success driving into the lanes and pulling up from midrange. However, their whole offense fizzled out, shooting 13-34 (38%) from the field and just 4-15 (27%) from three-point range. 

The Beach led by as many as six points in the final minute of the game. Aboubacar Traore was crucial throughout the whole tournament, knocking in free throw after free throw in crunch time. He was awarded as the Big West Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, finishing 5-6 from the free throw line after going 12-13 the previous night in their win against UC Irvine

Despite a late scare from UC Davis after a three from Johnson to cut The Beach’s lead to two points, The Beach knocked down their free throws, securing the 74-70 win. 

Prior to the start of the Big West Tournament, Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson was informed that he would not return as head coach next year. In a post-game press conference about this emotional week, Monson discussed the decision, saying he has no regrets.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Monson said. “There’s nobody I would rather be. I’m glad to be around the people here at Long Beach State basketball. We did it for each other and each other’s families.

Long Beach State will play Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament on Thursday, March 21 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Miguel Rodriguez is a Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at miguer9@uci.edu.

Edited by James Huston, Jaheem Conley, and Laiyla Santillan