NCAA tournament: Long Beach State coach Dan Monson's defiant run ends with loss to Arizona

At some point, no matter how many one-liners he unleashed or smiles he created or tears he jerked, Dan Monson knew this magical March ride would end.

Oh, sure, the Long Beach State coach wanted to linger two more days, not to mention two more weeks on college basketball’s biggest stage after being told he was out of a job at season’s end.

On the eve of his first NCAA tournament appearance in a dozen years, Monson joked to reporters that he didn’t have to answer their questions because he was working for free. He quipped that he had car and house payments that he didn’t know how he was going to make. He cracked to his players that they would need to put team meals on a credit card.

After 17 seasons at the Beach, the school’s athletic officials told him his coaching tab was overdue. It was the place where he watched his children grow up, his players go from sinking three-pointers to diagramming plays as part of his staff and his wife remain a trusted confidant through every win and loss.

He didn’t want it to end. Rolling through the Big West Conference tournament last week had made Monson a Cinderella with stubble, a Jim Valvano without the Italian accent. He seemingly had an answer — and a joke — for everything the cruel world of college basketball could throw at him.

Then came a beast that could not be slayed, a joke that elicited only silence.

Arizona was simply too much Thursday at the Delta Center. There was no game plan Monson could diagram, no fellowship he could create among his players that could overcome this mighty force during an 85-65 loss in the first round.

The dream did not die quietly, the 15th-seeded Beach matching the second-seeded Wildcats basket for basket for most of the first half. When a Jadon Jones steal led to an AJ George floater on which he was fouled, the Beach held a 22-17 lead and its throng of fans was roaring in celebration of the possibilities.

Long Beach State guard Marcus Tsohonis (0) looks around Arizona guard Kylan Boswell (4)

Long Beach State guard Marcus Tsohonis (0) looks around Arizona guard Kylan Boswell during an NCAA tournament game in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

(Isaac Hale / Associated Press)

But Long Beach State could not keep up with Arizona’s shot making from long range or point-blank range. Down by just six points at halftime, the Beach (21-15) were on the wrong side of a 17-2 run full of easy baskets and three-pointers to open the second half. By then it was apparent the Wildcats (26-8) would advance to the second round to face either Nevada or Dayton on Saturday.

What’s next for Monson? The 62-year-old has said he wanted to keep coaching and surely will get another offer either as a head coach or an assistant. The winningest coach in Beach history also took Minnesota and Gonzaga to the NCAA tournament, reaching the Elite Eight in 1999 with the Bulldogs. This guy offers more than a robust sense of humor.

Monson was cracking jokes before he took his first question here the day before his tournament opener.

“Did you see the ‘Seinfeld’ when George was trying to get fired and couldn’t lose his job, still going to work every day?” Monson said. “That’s me. I’m a Seinfeld episode going on right now in real life.”

The lighthearted theme had started in a film session with his players last week on the day he was informed he would be dismissed.

“Just look at this first defensive clip, guys,” Monson told his players. “We close out short here. The guy is wide open, we don’t get a contest. These are the kind of plays that get a coach fired. The whole room broke up. It started right then. It was like, ‘OK, we’re going to be all right here.’”

There was even some ribbing between Monson and Arizona counterpart Tommy Lloyd, who could thank Monson for his start in the business. When he coached at Gonzaga, Monson had promised Lloyd a job as an administrative assistant, only to leave for Minnesota by the time Lloyd was ready to accept the role. It left Monson’s successor, Mark Few, in an awkward spot, as Few let him know during a phone call after taking over the Bulldogs.

“About halfway through the conversation Mark said, ‘This grad guy you got here, what is his name again and what did you promise him?’” Monson said. “I just laugh at that now because Tommy is Tommy, where he is, one of the best coaches in America. Making enough money to buy my pizza last night.”

Staying in character after showing up late to that dinner with Lloyd and Few, whose Bulldogs also opened the tournament here, Monson quipped that he was tardy only because he was installing the Princeton offense.

Arizona guard Pelle Larsson (3) guards Long Beach State guard Jadon Jones (12) as he drives up the court

Arizona guard Pelle Larsson (3) guards Long Beach State’s Jadon Jones as he drives up the court during an NCAA tournament game in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Not to be outdone, Lloyd teased Monson that it would be great to see some semblance of offense from his team.

Monson got in the last word, as he tends to do. After the moderator at the media session Wednesday thanked Monson for his time, the coach delivered one final remark to the assembled reporters.

“I’ll see you guys on Friday,” Monson deadpanned, alluding to another media session after having beaten Arizona. “Tell Tommy I said that.”

Maybe not Friday, but certainly soon.

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