ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) –– Casper Ware scored 33 points, James Ennis got six of his 15 points in the final 5:08 and Long Beach State relied on its long-range shooting to beat UC Santa Barbara 77-64 on Saturday night, winning the Big West conference championship game and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Ware was 10 for 23 from the field for the two-time Big West regular-season champion 49ers (25-8), who lost to the Gauchos in each of the previous two conference championship games.
Santa Barbara (20-10) has lost only four of its last 17 games, with three of those defeats coming at the hands of Long Beach State. This defeat ended the Gauchos’ string of seven consecutive Big West tournament victories.
James Nunnelly and Orlando Johnson each had 17 points for UCSB.
The 49ers were 14 for 33 on 3-pointers, including 8 for 16 by Ware, the tourney MVP.
Ware’s four-point play gave Long Beach State a 51-46 advantage with 12:41 remaining.
Ware was fouled by Jaime Serna on a 3-pointer from the right elbow, then converted the free throw before the 49ers increased the margin to 57-46 on a three-point play by T.J. Robinson that began with his fast-break layup off a one-bounce pass in the lane from Mike Caffey.
Ware, the Big West player of the year for the second straight season, added another 3-pointer and Eugene Phelps capped the pivotal 12-0 run with a layup in heavy traffic to give Long Beach State a commanding 59-46 lead with 9:18 to play.
UCSB got no closer than seven points after that, as Ennis sank two free throws, converted a steal by Caffey into a breakaway dunk and hit a driving layup to give the 49ers a 70-57 cushion with 4:08 left.
Eighteen of the Long Beach State’s first 27 shots came from 3-point range, and eight of them were successful.
Peter Pappageorge followed with two more 3s just 51 seconds apart, giving Long Beach State a 33-24 lead with 5:36 left in the first half. But UCSB ended the half with a 10-3 spurt, narrowing the gap to 36-34.
Long Beach State played its third straight game without Big West defensive player of the year Larry Anderson, who suffered a sprained ligament in his right knee in a 77-74 loss at Cal State Fullerton that ended the regular season.
The 49ers started out 15-0 in conference play including two wins over Santa Barbara by a combined margin of 35 points, before their 23-game conference winning streak was snapped by the Titans.
Ware, Anderson, Robinson and Phelps, all of whom came to Long Beach in of coach Dan Monson’s first recruiting class, will be going to the tournament for the first time. They were denied an automatic berth each of the previous two seasons by Santa Barbara in the Big West Tournament championship game.