<
>

Pacific beats Long Beach for third straight NCAA bid

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) -- Pacific is making the NCAA Tournament an
annual tradition.

Christian Maraker had 23 points and 11 rebounds, and the Tigers
clinched their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament with a
78-70 win over Long Beach State on Saturday night in the Big West
Conference tournament championship game.

The Tigers had gone to the NCAA tournament just once in the
previous 25 years.

"We're just developing into a great program," tournament MVP
Johnny Gray said. "I think we have something special going on."

Maraker, the Big West player of the year, was coming off a
2-for-7 shooting performance in the semifinals but made shots from
all over the floor and went 9-for-11 from the field Saturday night.

Gray added 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting for the top-seeded
Tigers (24-7), who have won 14 of 15 games and took their second
conference tournament title in three years.

"It's an unbelievable experience, especially on an Adrenalin
kick," Maraker said.

Pacific shot 59.2 percent -- 63.2 percent in the second half.

"I don't know if we can play any better than we played
tonight," Pacific coach Bob Thomason said. "Our guys took hits
from them and kept on fighting."

Shawn Hawkins had a career-high 27 points for No. 3 seed Long
Beach State (18-12), which reached the conference finals for the
first time since 1995. Aaron Nixon added 17 points and Mark Dawson
had 15 rebounds for the 49ers, who came back from a 14-point
first-half deficit to take the lead in the second half.

Trailing 55-53, the Tigers went on a 16-5 run capped by a
3-pointer from Mike Webb to take a 69-60 lead with 6:02 to play.

Nixon made a 3 to pull Long Beach State within 70-65 with 3:46
to go, but the 49ers would get no closer.

Gray went 4-of-4 from the free throw line down the stretch to
seal the win for Pacific.

Michael White added 11 late points on 4-for-4 shooting for the
Tigers.

"They capitalized on some of their opportunities, and we might
have hit a little bit of a wall," said Long Beach State coach
Larry Reynolds. "They played a little better defense than we did.
About eight points better."

Hawkins scored eight points in the first 3 minutes of the second
half to pull Long Beach State within 46-44, and 2 minutes later his
layup tied it at 49.

"Shawn put the team on his back," Reynolds said. "Tonight was
his night, he was going to go down fighting."

Jibril Hodges' 3-pointer gave the 49ers their first lead of the
second half at 52-50 with 13:50 to go.

Pacific won the 2004 Big West tournament, and last year got an
at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after losing in the conference
finals to Utah State.

The Tigers lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament both
years.

Pacific didn't have to struggle with Utah State this year, as it
often has in recent years. The Aggies, who had won four of six Big
West titles, moved to the Western Athletic Conference after last
season.

Pacific had a bye straight to the semifinals this year and beat
Cal Poly 68-57 Friday night.

The Tigers twice led by 14 in the first half Saturday, the
second time after Gray's 3-pointer put Pacific up 42-28 with 2:35
to play.

Long Beach State then scored the last eight points of the half,
including a layup from Hawkins and a 3-pointer at the buzzer from
Nixon that pulled the 49ers within 42-36.