Already dismissed, Dan Monson leads Long Beach State on unlikely last dance

Dan Monson was gone. Done. Finished.

Standing before his players, he was a dead coach about to blow his final whistle.

Essentially fired at the start of what was expected to be his last week on the job, the longtime Long Beach State basketball boss told his players that the school’s athletic administration had not just quit on him but on them as well.

There’s no way they think you can win the Big West tournament, Monson said. Let’s show them they’re wrong.

The Beach showed them … and showed them … and showed them.

Three wins in as many days gave the team an unlikely tournament title and its coach an unexpected reprieve. While it didn’t save Monson’s job — he says he doesn’t want it back and his employer says he isn’t getting it back — the championship run vaulted the Beach into a familiar position on the eve of their first NCAA tournament game in a dozen years.

There’s no way they think you can win this thing. Let’s show them they’re wrong.

Seeking its first NCAA tournament victory since the high-flying days of coach Jerry Tarkanian in 1973, the 15th-seeded Beach (21-14) intends to repeat recent and distant history by stunning second-seeded Arizona (25-8) on Thursday at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City.

“Something [last] week has given them is, somebody telling them that they have no chance of winning that tournament,” Monson said of his players, “and hopefully we can continue that momentum of banding together and not worrying about anybody else.”

Shunning the usual NCAA tournament selection show gathering on campus, the Beach met Sunday at Monson’s Los Alamitos home to keep away anyone from the school who might have secretly agreed with their coach’s dismissal.

The winningest coach in Long Beach State history, Monson had started the season with five returning starters and high hopes bolstered by becoming the nation’s only team to win three road games against three different power conferences after beating DePaul (Big East), Michigan (Big Ten) and USC (Pac-12).

Unfotunately for the Beach, part of the team then played as if it could take the rest of the regular season off.

“We lost focus after we won those games,” junior forward Lassina Traore said. “We thought the conference games would be easier for us and it was totally different, so we got caught.”

Struggles with defense and consistency followed. Picked to finish second behind UC Santa Barbara in the Big West, the Beach finished in a tie for fifth, bottoming out with five consecutive losses to end the regular season.

Monson called for a meeting with his athletic director on March 11 to tell him that he would resign if the team didn’t have a better showing in the conference tournament. But the coach was stunned to learn that the decision to move on had already been made and would be announced that day.

That’s when Monson told his players that everyone doubted them, sparking a resolve to back the coach who treated them just like the son who was a walk-on guard and the older son who was a graduate assistant.

“This is Coach Monson’s last dance with us,” said junior forward Aboubacar Traore, who is not related to Lassina Traore, “so let’s make sure people remember his last tournament.”

Victories over UC Riverside and top-seeded UC Irvine put the Beach on the brink of its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012. Standing before his players again on the morning of the championship game against UC Davis, Monson told them that they would take the bus immediately after the game to his house for the selection show, suggesting that they were about to complete a monumental victory.

Before the coach could continue, the emotion of the moment overcame him. His players cheered, Lassina Traore telling Monson that they would win for him. Later, Monson asked captain Jadon Jones, who had played in the championship game two years earlier, when the Beach lost by a point, what the team needed to do differently this time.

“Guys,” Jones told his teammates, “we just need to stay in the moment. The moment’s never too big if that’s all you’re worried about is the moment, but when you try to do more than that, that’s when it gets too big.”

“Stay in the moment” became more than a mantra that Monson wrote on the whiteboard in the locker room, the words resonating with the coach who realized that he had never fully embraced his Elite Eight run with Gonzaga in 1999.

“I didn’t appreciate it enough at that point,” Monson said, “because it was the second year in my career, I just thought this was going to happen every year.”

He left after the season for a big-boy job with Minnesota but was unable to recapture the same magic in the Big Ten, leading him to Long Beach State in 2007. Knowing these will be his final days at the school has prompted him to savor every moment, responding to each of the 343 text messages on his phone after the Beach pulled out a 74-70 triumph over UC Davis.

The challenge awaiting against Arizona is unlike anything the Beach has faced this season — but maybe the same thing could be said for the 19½-point favorite Wildcats given the smoldering fire inside their opponent.

“At this point, people will be thinking that you reached your goal just getting to the NCAA tournament, but we aren’t done yet,” Aboubacar Traore said. “People think that we’re just going to go play Thursday to go have fun, but it’s not one game, we’ve got two games this week. We aren’t just going over there to be there. We’re trying to make this trip special.”

Long Beach State features five players averaging double figures in scoring and six who have scored 20 or more points in a game this season. Senior guard Marcus Tsohonis, the team’s leading scorer who averages 17.6 points per game, has starred on the big stage, scoring 35 points against Michigan and 28 against USC.

Forming the team’s starting frontcourt, the Traores have been reunited more than 7,000 miles from where they met as youth national teammates in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa. Lassina Traore averages a double-double and Aboubacar Traore logged a triple-double in the Big West tournament while nearly averaging one over the three days.

Should Arizona fall behind, the pressure could quickly mount to avoid another early NCAA tournament flameout. The Wildcats lost to 15th-seeded Princeton in the first round last year, a fate they also suffered against 15th-seeded Santa Clara in 1993 — making them the only team in tournament history to stumble twice in those matchups.

But Arizona is coming off a loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament and hasn’t dropped two consecutive games under coach Tommy Lloyd in his three seasons. Basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy’s metrics give the Wildcats a 96% chance of winning.

Just don’t tell Monson that he’s done, gone or finished. That might lead to finding him still around when it’s least expected.

“It’s how teams like ours,” Monson said, “prosper in these situations.”

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