Women’s basketball marching towards spot in national tournament
Words and Graphics by Matthew Gozzip Athletics Editor
Cinderella looks different running up and down the court in the Walter Pyramid.
A pumpkin morphing into a carriage? Replace it with a basketball.
Glass slippers and an elegant dress? How about neon yellow Lebron 10’s and compression sleeve shirts instead.
A coachman and footmen? Try a point guard that drives the team and a group of blue collar defenders that do all the dirty work.
The Long Beach State women’s basketball team may not have that much in common with the protagonist from the classic fairytale, but the story feels all too similar. Even though they are atop the Big West standings, experts don’t project them to make it to the end-of-season tournament, NCAA March Madness.
LBSU is not compromised with the darlings of the ball, rather a collection of players overlooked by more prestigious college basketball programs. There is no fairy godmother that grants them size — they are one of the shorter teams in the conference. Critics that cite the 49ers limitations don’t even give the team any coverage at all.
Blame it on profile of the conference or the minimal national exposure but make no mistake about it, The Beach is ready to march towards March.
The 49ers won five of their last six games, capturing the head-to-head tiebreaker over the University of California, Davis for the top spot in the conference. LBSU’s latest victory, an 84-55 drubbing over California State Fullerton Titans last Thursday, showcased the team’s full potential.
The Beach shot a near equal percentage to CSUF but still managed to limit the amount of good looks at the basket. The Titans shot 22 less shots than the 49ers, a startlingly statistic considering that both teams had the same field goal percentage. True to their form all season, The Beach’s defense disrupted the ball, forcing 23 turnovers and chalking up nine steals.
LBSU’s recent hot streak has been fueled by this tenacious team defense, one of the peskiest groups in the nation.
The Beach is ranked 26th in the nation in turnovers forced per game (20.52) and has accumulated more than 240 steals in just 25 contests.
Even though their opponent’s have converted 42.3 percent of their field goal attempts, the 49ers have broken the rhythm of opposing offenses.
Quick hands and a defensive system that enables players to switch between assignments more efficiently has made the 49ers a tough team to start a continual scoring run on. If the game is close, The Beach has a higher chance of winning.
What makes it even more frustrating for their opponents is that the 49ers have proficient ball movement too. The Beach holds the 16th best turnover margin in the nation (6.24+) and a near equal assist to turnover ratio. Senior guard Anna Kim is not only the face of the team but also an intelligent floor general that knows the system and the personnel better than most players on other teams.
Even with stellar ball possession and defense, The Beach has struggled all season to field an efficient offense. Shooting woes (38.3 percent season average) and lack of rebounds (ranked 261st in the nation) prevent the 49ers from closing out close games.
However, a potential solution has recently emerged in junior guard Jessica Gertz, a deadly markswoman heating up from the three-point line as of late. In last week’s contest against CSUF, Gertz nailed nine three-pointers, a career-high and school-record at LBSU.
In the past five games alone, Gertz has converted more than 20 three-pointers, by far the most on the team.
The offensive problems will not be solved by just Gertz but if the rest of the team finds a way to find her open or find more efficient looks for the more accurate players on the team, the defense might be enough to hold off stronger opponents.
All things considered, The Beach may not be ready at this moment to make a deep March Madness run. They were dominated by superior teams such as Duke, Florida and USC, regulars in the tournament who still struggle to defeat the very best teams in the country. The critics are justified in their reservations surrounding the team.
That being said, the Beach has their own trump card: experience. The senior quartet of Kim, guard Raven Benton and the frontcourt of Jewelyn Sawyer and Madison Montgomery offer more than just statistical contribution. After a four-game losing streak early in the season against the aforementioned highly ranked teams, the seniors have kept the team focus in check.
The spotty record became secondary to continual improvement over the season. Against the No. 22 ranked University of South Florida Bulls, LBSU upset the Bulls for their first win against a ranked team in nearly two years. Ever since then, the team has gone 9-4.
Credit also has to go to Coach Jody Wynn for experimenting with new lineup changes, extending roles for junior guard Cece Wilson and sophomore guard Martina McCowan to develop them into two of the best defenders for The Beach.
There are six regular season games left for The Beach until the Big West conference tournament where the winner gets an automatic invitation to the NCAA tournament. Luckily, the first leg of the tournament will be played at home in the Pyramid before moving to the local Honda Center. LBSU technically holds a home-court advantage in the postseason, furthering the possibility of this becoming a special season for the 49ers.
The 49ers may not have clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament at the moment but that may be a blessing in disguise. The Beach now have an opportunity to continue to refine their performance before facing off against the nation’s best.
Cinderella continues to dance like there is no tomorrow, because there might not be. Despite the gauntlet that lays ahead, the clock isn’t anywhere close to striking midnight on The Beach.