LONG BEACH, CALIF. - Three games in three days would decide everything, and Long Beach State men's basketball coach Dan Monson wanted to tune out his team's players. He did not want to hear their music. He did not want to watch them eat.

"I try to get selfish on game days, be alone," the former Gophers coach said. "The older I get, the more I realize I'm the problem, not the kids. Everything they do on gameday bugs me."

His team needed three victories in three nights to win the Big West Conference tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament. So after a morning film session and an hourlong workout, the players boarded a bus to the team hotel. Monson went home.

He showed up at the hotel hours later, in time to catch the team bus to Anaheim, Calif. Monson's players sat in the back. Most listened to music through huge headphones or tiny earbuds.

Monson sat in the front seat. He had earbuds, too. His iPod had 70 songs, most downloaded by his children. The playlist is at the whim of the shuffle function.

"I skip through the Hannah Montana songs," he said. "But when the Black Eyed Peas, that 'It's Gonna Be a Good, Good Night' song comes on, I think it's a good omen."

Monson crossed the locker room, stepping over players stretching on the floor, pulled a bud from his ear and shared it.

It was the Black Eyed Peas. Maybe it was going to be a good, good night.

The pressure to win three

Long Beach State spent the season as another midmajor darling, a team that many suspected could advance deep into the NCAA tournament the way that George Mason, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth had in recent years.

The conventional prerequisites were in place: a roster laden with seniors (including four starters); one of the nation's top point guards, Casper Ware, armed with both panache and a memorable name; an experienced coach in Monson, who once piloted an unsung team (Gonzaga in 1999) into the Elite Eight; and the nation's toughest nonconference schedule, filled with a couple of early-season upsets, against Pittsburgh and Xavier, and single-digit road losses at places such as Kansas, North Carolina, San Diego State and Creighton.

But to make a mark in the NCAA tournament, the 49ers had to get in, for just the second time since 1995 and the first in Monson's five seasons.

An ill father

On Thursday morning, players sat quietly in a square at tables in the film room at the Pyramid, Long Beach State's iconic arena. It was seven hours before tipoff of the tournament opener against California Davis.

Monson walked into the room. "OK, fellas, it's here," he said. "If you're not excited today, you've been working hard for the wrong reasons."

But something weighed on Monson, 50, during this important week. His father, Don, was seriously ill.

A former coach at Idaho and Oregon, the 78-year-old had flown down Wednesday from Spokane, Wash., to watch the tournament. He got to Dan and Darci's house, complained a little about a sore leg. He eventually complained about chills. Darci took his temperature. It was 105. An infection, tied to his diabetes, had taken over his leg.

"The doctors said that he would have died if we hadn't brought him in," Dan Monson said.

His father spent the night in a hospital for the first time since 1952. One night at the hospital led to two, then to three. The infection got into the bones of his father's toes. Doctors said one needed to be partly amputated.

Dan Monson barely mentioned it to his players. They did not know that while they were sequestered in the team hotel, he spent his morning and evenings, late after games, at his father's side.

Wanted: Santa Barbara

It was halftime against 12-19 Cal-Irvine. The 49ers trailed 28-27. Ware, the two-time Big West Player of the Year, had 15 points, but his teammates were a combined 4-for-22.

Everything came easily the night before in an 80-46 rout of UC-Davis. Now hope was unspooling in a string of missed layups and lapsed defense.

Monson and his three assistant coaches convened in an adjoining room. The players waited. No one looked at anyone else. Edis Dervisevic, a fiery 6-8 senior from New York City, broke the silence. We're good, he said. He told his teammates one by one, hoping it was contagious. No one responded.

Larry Anderson, the injured star, spoke up.

"You guys act like we're down 14," he said.

The 6-5 Anderson was a three-time first-team all-conference player. He was the Big West Defensive Player of the Year, a rangy do-it-all guard. But he sprained his knee in the last regular-season game, a loss to Cal State-Fullerton that ruined the 49ers' perfect conference season and put their NCAA tourney plans in flux.

Monson was calm, but he paced in front of the board.

"What we can't do now is panic and try to get 10 points in one possession," he said. "That's how we got out last year."

He raised his voice, building. "Champions don't play great every day," he said. "They find a way to win."

Long Beach State quickly fell behind by five. But Dervisevic led Long Beach State on an 18-4 run that flipped the momentum and righted the conference order. The 49ers won 68-57.

In the locker room, amid joy and relief, Monson emphasized that games do not have to be pretty. They just have to be victories. Then he said what all his players were thinking.

"I want Santa Barbara," he said. "It's like conquering the demons."

The four seniors

Long Beach State had been building for this moment. Let go seven games into his eighth season with the Gophers -- a stint that produced only one NCAA tournament berth in the wake of the academic scandal under predecessor Clem Haskins -- Monson arrived at Long Beach State in 2007 with the program on probation.

Monson absorbed a 6-25 season his first year. But he soon found players who became his foundation: Casper Ware, Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps. All four are senior starters now.

"These four seniors have rewritten our record book," Monson said. "I don't want them to be the best players to never go to the NCAA tournament."

All four have scored more than 1,000 career points. The 49ers, though, start and stop with the 5-10 Ware. His size scared big-name colleges away. But Monson saw him guarding blue-chip players a foot taller in high school, holding his own with scrappiness and savvy.

Now Ware is a two-time conference Player of the Year. He was the conference's Defensive Player of the Year last season.

But Monson is most proud of his growth off the court. He has become a quiet, respected leader. He will get a communications degree in May. And when he speaks, people listen.

Ware to the rescue

It was halftime of the biggest game of their lives, and things were not going smoothly.

A nine-point lead had been whittled to two, and history looked ready to repeat. Long Beach State lost the previous two Big West tournament title games to UCSB.

Win, and top-seeded Long Beach State would automatically advance to the NCAA tournament. Lose? Probably not. The whims of a selection committee would decide.

After a calm pep talk from Monson, the 49ers gathered in a bunch, put their hands together and, on the count of three shouted, "Finish!"

With about 13 minutes left, Long Beach State held a 47-46 lead. Ware had 24 points.

He launched a long three from in front of the Long Beach State bench. He was knocked backward and fell. A foul was called. The ball swished.

The partisan crowd exploded. Monson ran a few steps onto the court and lifted his point guard to his feet and smacked him on the back side. A few feet away, sitting on press row, was Don Monson, released from the hospital Saturday afternoon.

Long Beach State found its groove. Robinson scored a fast-break layup and was fouled. Ware, on his way to 33 points, hit another three. Phelps scored from inside. The 49ers had a 12-0 run.

The horn sounded: 77-64. Long Beach State fans poured from the stands, smothering the floor and engulfing the players. The stress of three days rushed out.

Don Monson, looking vibrant beyond the medical boot on his right foot, stood and watched from behind the scorer's table. "Finally," he mouthed with a wink.

"You know, when we put our hands together and say, 'Finish!' Well, we're not finished," Monson said in the locker room.

Eventually, Long Beach State (25-8) boarded its bus. The trophy, a gold basketball sitting atop a block-wood base, had its own seat. Players were headed back to the Pyramid, where a smattering of fans and band members applauded them.

But before the bus left the underground dock at the Honda Center, there was confusion about who was missing. No one was sure if Monson was boarding the bus. He stood outside, surrounded by family. Eventually, he turned and pushed his father in a wheelchair toward the car.