This year's 49er team is both agonizing and heroic, ballistic and exasperating. But within these conflicting confines a spirit is arising, one of the Never Die Niners. Close losses to UCSD and UCR only lit a fire under this squad; a blowout at UCI and going down double digits at home to this same Anteater group and another 49er team might have drooped their collective shoulders and slunked to a lackluster loss.
But the Never Die Niners were born in the 3 OT miracle win at UCSD. They've tussled with a tough Titan team twice in two weeks coming out victors in each, both games filled with rivalrous animosity, crazed student sections, and electric atmospheres.
Great Samurai swords are patiently forged in blazing heat, polished and honed in grit and grind. This 49er team, like swords patiently tempered in fire, are finding a team soul, one that cares less about how they get to the finish line, but more how they finish their opponent.
Tonight's effort unfolded like many others, the Beach whipping up waves of action and turmoil and UCI calmly finding their way through the storm. The Niners kept finding ways to miss in-close shots and UCI picked and preened through each successive wave of Niner resistance and built their lead, much like a bird building a nest with bits of thread and cast-off sticks. Orderly and defined, their manic coach Russ Turner pacing the sidelines, barking out orders, seeming to calmly absorb what usually ruffles his feathers.
The score was close at the half, thanks to a run by the Beach, that vaporized a near double digit deficit to one. As the crew cruised to relative calm of the halftime locker room, you could see the fire building in their eyes, the confidence born of battles won and even lost. The collective body language read: We got this.
Perhaps not though not for lack of valiant Niner effort, the second half began with a barrage from UCI that continued to drench the Beach with patient doses of repeatedly drilled offensive sets that lacked the panache of the 49er attack, but was heaped in smartly consistent strategies. What could vex these ant eating invaders? Then in strode Stroud, a useful bench backup who has made some waves but nothing you could ride on a longboard; this time it would be different. Amari amazingly defended the UCI guards upcourt, let his arms fly as defensive wings and it paid off with tipped balls, steals, and a striding Stroud attacking the rim on fast breaks. This energized the atmosphere, sent the student section into spasms, and the 49ers into that next gear, that team spirit, the one who doesn't believe death is for today.
All of a sudden, shots that were clanking began to fall. Jadon Jones, mired in a mid season slump, drilled some classic 3 point bombs; Marcus Tsohonis, like a beast of burden, plowed and ground his way down low for strenuous layins, flip ups, and trips to the line. Lassina Traore, that gazelle with the timing of a Swiss watch, grabbed nearly every rebound in sight, and UCI could only foul the graceful Ivory Coast import and watch as this typically misfiring FT practitioner calmly sank 6 in a row. Both teams continued to slug it out, as the Beach gained momentum and closed the gap. But UCI found its own bread of life, a Bakers Dawson who found the rim on wild layups, and multiple made free ones. But it came down to this: down 3 with precious few seconds and possessions left, the Norwegian mad bomber, whose 3 pt shooting at times have been icier than December in Hammerfest, was slung a swing pass in the corner, to which Tobias Rotegaard calmly sank the game tying 3 pointer.
Only to be bested again by the relentless machine of UCI guards gearing upcourt with precision in the turmoil, to the tune of two more free throws, and a 2 point deficit with 4.6 seconds left.
No worries though. Tone Hunter, the 6-0 guard with a turbo afterburner gear, smartly took the inbounds the full length and drove into the chest of the UCI defense, being fouled less than a second before the game light blew its signal. Tone then calmly sank to game tying free throws, atoning for two earlier turnovers mere minutes prior.
And overtime it was. UCI struck first, with Baker nailing a 3, but it was all 49ers from this point on, with Aboubacar Traore, his ripped body flexing through the defense for rebounds, putbacks, and topped off by a FT for an old fashioned three. And don't forget Jadon Jones, that bastion of stalwart defense, pounding the floor relentlessly in the waning moments, firing up his guys and the fans, blocking UCIs shots like swatting sand flies in the summer. And don't forget Tsohonis, who is seemingly at the center of many of these heroics, calmly shouldering the fortunes of these Forty Niners, seemingly unimpeded by a gimpy, sore foot. He calmly sank two FTs that helped put this one in the freezer, to be taken out once in a while and nibbled on, to remember that glorious Saturday afternoon in Long Beach when the Never Die Niners gave UCI a lesson in moxie and fortitude.
Yours truly, a longtime fan given a treat worth savoring
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