The 2006-07 season for the Long Beach State women’s basketball team was full of growing pains. The squad was one of the youngest in the Big West with its whopping nine freshman, and the youth was evident as the 49ers struggled to a 9-23 record and sixth place finish in the conference. It was not all bad, as the team came together late to win four of its final six games, advancing to the Big West Tournament semifinals after taking down UC Irvine in the first round and upsetting Cal Poly in the second.
Fast-forward to 2007-08 and you see a Long Beach squad that returns all five starters, but the consistency from a year ago has not translated into on-court success. The 49ers (3-12 overall, 1-3 in the Big West) have yet to earn back-to-back wins and have already compiled a six-game losing streak. A tough nonconference schedule did not make things easier for Long Beach, who has faltered against teams from the Big 12, Pac-10, and Western Athletic Conference. On the other hand, one of the Beach’s three wins came against Pac-10 foe Washington State, and the squad gave Santa Barbara – one of the preseason conference favorites – a close game in the conference opener before falling 70-62.
“We have a tough schedule again this season, but we’ll be much better prepared for that schedule,” Head Coach Mary Hegarty said. “I think that we need to be patient once again, and that we’re looking at the conference season knowing that being in the top of the conference is our goal and that everything else works as preparation for that.”
Hegarty is in her fifth year at the helm of the 49ers and was the 2005-06 Big West Coach of the Year. After spending 10 years as the head coach for Chapman University, where she took the Panthers to four NCAA Tournaments – including a trip to the Sweet 16 – Hegarty has been unable to get the 49ers over the hump in the Big West and into the Big Dance. The nine wins posted by Long Beach last year were five fewer than any 49er team had previously earned under Hegarty.
Expected to pace the offense for the Beach was junior guard Karina Figueroa, the only member of last year’s team to garner all-conference recognition, as she was named to the All-Big West Second-Team. The Corona native ranked third in the league with a 16.4 points per game average and was selected to the Big West Conference All-Tournament team for her role in the 49ers’ impressive tournament run, but has been out with an injury after appearing in the first seven contests.
Helping to fill Figueroa’s void is senior guard Tyresha Calhoun, Long Beach’s leading playmaker from a year ago. The transfer from Riverside Community College and lone senior is the only uninjured 49er to average more than 10 points a game and ranks fifth in the conference averaging 3.23 assists per game and tenth with 1.69 steals per game. Sophomore guard Lauren Sims has earned the starting nod in nine of the Beach’s 15 games and has earned the third-most minutes on her squad. Sims tops the conference in three-point field goal percentage, shooting at a .409 clip.
“Tyresha really makes us go, and has moments where she can dictate games with her speed,” Hegarty said. “We really want her to push coast-to-coast, and she’s our best defender. With her growth and experience that she gained last year, she’s emerged as one of the strong leaders on this team.”
Leading the way in the frontcourt is junior point guard Kaiti O’Brien, the team leader in field goal percentage and rebounding a year ago. One of four 49ers averaging at least eight points per game, O’Brien came on strong to close out last season, tallying 19 points and 17 rebounds in Long Beach’s first round win against the Anteaters in the first round of the Big West Tournament. Sophomore forward Ally Wade joins O’Brien in the paint, averaging eight points per game along with 4.1 boards. Wade, from El Dorado High School in Yorba Linda, is the team leader from the free throw line, sinking 79 percent of her attempts from the charity stripe.
“[O’Brien] really came alive for us through the season, becoming more confident and playing with more poise,” Hegarty said. “She understands our system as well as anyone on the team, and she runs the floor very well, so we’ll expect her to be a force there as well as with rebounding and setting screens.”
Five new players will be donning the black and gold for the first time in freshman guard LaTorya Barbee, freshman forward Ashley Bookman and two junior guard transfers in Valeriya Musina and Lynea Williams, along with junior forward transfer Whitney Fields. Musina, coming to Southern California from Louisville, was expected to be an impact player, but has been sidelined with injury since the second game of the season. Fields, a transfer from Arizona, has to sit out the season, while Barbee has had the most success of any of the newcomers, averaging 4.9 points and 2.1 assists while appearing in every game thus far.
A tough nonconference slate pushed the 49ers toward the bottom of the Big West in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The squad owns the third worst scoring margin in the conference, but is by far the league’s most deadly team from behind the arc, shooting 37 percent from long range. Defense has been a constant struggle for Long Beach, ranking next to last in blocked shots along with steals. Holding onto the ball has also been a challenge, as the 49ers own a conference worst negative 4.07 turnover margin.
“We’re really going to emphasize getting easy baskets, and with our quickness, we’ll be able to get opportunities from our defense. We’re really stressing work in the transition game, getting up and down the floor quicker, and I think that team will resemble a lot of the teams that I’ve found success with in the past.”
The loss of Figueroa has hampered Long Beach on both ends of the court, and the youthful team has yet to find a way to play together consistently. With only one senior on the roster and another half season of experience to be gained, the 49ers may have to wait until 2008-09 to be a legitimate challenged to the likes of UC Riverside and UCSB.