- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- To prepare his 12th-seeded Long Beach State 49ers for No. 5 seed Tennessee, head coach Larry Reynolds might have run 12 guys against his starting five if he had the available bodies.
"We did eight on five," Reynolds said Thursday, describing the team's practice regimen. "To simulate the quickness and length that Tennessee has, we tried to put some extra guys on the court to duplicate that and how it's really going to feel once they're out there. And our guys did OK."
But against five real Volunteers on Friday, Long Beach State was as overwhelmed and overmatched as if pitted against an even dozen. The SEC's Volunteers swamped the Big West champions 121-86, notching the fourth-highest point total ever in an NCAA first- or second-round game. Long Beach exactly matched its average points per game for the year, but Tennessee nailed 14 3s against a 49ers defense that had given up 75 points per game (third-most in the conference). The Vols shot 75 percent from the floor in the first 10 minutes of the game and exploded for 64 points in the second half.
"If you had told me that they were going to have 121 points, I wouldn't have believed that," an exhausted Reynolds said after the final buzzer halted the offensive avalanche. "Eighty-six points? I could see that as being a good number for us on a given night ... but it got out of hand in the beginning of the second half for us."
The 35-point loss ended the best Long Beach State season in recent memory: 24 overall wins, a conference championship, the school's first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1995, as well as Big West Coach of the Year honors for Reynolds. Normally, a mid-major coaching performance like that would be used as leverage for a raise or a magnet for power-conference offers, but Reynolds has been fighting for his job all season. Reynolds does not have a contract beyond this season, and the administration has been noncommittal about his continued employment.
"I'm a new AD, and we have a new president," said Long Beach athletic director Vic Cegles, who was hired to the post in April 2006 after three years as an associate AD at Temple. "We've said since day one that we're going to take this year and evaluate the situation, then meet with Larry after the season and decide what's best for the school and the program."
Despite the on-court success, the Long Beach season has not been without its tumult, with Reynolds and his players continually dealing with the contract questions. Also hanging over the Walter Pyramid like a dark cloud is an ongoing NCAA investigation regarding two players' pre-Long Beach eligibility. Second-leading scorer Kejuan Johnson and big man Mark Dawson missed three games each in late January and later were cleared, but assistant coach Reggie Howard remains suspended as allegations swirl about payments for the two players' junior college educations.
While the Beach season met its slow demise Friday, Cegles sat directly behind the 49ers' bench, fixing Reynolds with his gaze. As the scoring deficit deepened and the players' body language became increasingly slumped and despondent, the head coach pleaded with his players to stay active as the grooves in Cegles' brow deepened.
Now the 49ers' season is over, as are the careers of seven seniors -- including all five starters. There's also the chance that Reynolds' stay in Long Beach is over, even though his win total has steadily increased each year since his hire in 2002, climbing from five to six to 10 to 18 to 24.
"It's not hard to triple your wins when the first couple of years we had five and six," Reynolds said. "Yeah, I think the program has come a long way, and to get to the point now where we won 24 games, [but] there are still steps this program needs to get to ... and [Cegles and university president Dr. F. King Alexander] are in charge of that. I'm sure they'll make the best decision for Long Beach State and Long Beach basketball."
As Nationwide Arena emptied out after the initial first-round session, Cegles lingered in the stands. He stopped short of tipping his hand about Reynolds' contract situation, but he praised the players' effort.
Reynolds hopes he doesn't run into one next week.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.