Mott Gym’s first men’s Big West Conference win in nearly two years seemed like a definite possibility for 37 minutes.
But without its starting center for the third straight game and with the book out on at least a few of its offensive sets, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s potential upset of Pacific evaporated in a fraction of that time Friday.
Back-to-back defensive lapses at the 3-point line and two technical free throws for having six men in the game stretched a one-point Tigers lead to nine in just three trips down the court.
It was the pivotal moment in a 73-63 Pacific victory and kept Cal Poly winless at home in the Big West since a 70-63 overtime win over UC Riverside on the last day of February 2008.
“It’s a big shock,” Cal Poly’s Lorenzo Keeler said. “It was close and then all of a sudden, they made a run.
“I saw a lot of guys on the team’s heads kind of dropped, kind of got discouraged. We have to do a better job of not getting discouraged. We have to know they’re going to make a run. We have to counter that and make our own runs.”
Holding a 55-54 lead with 6:49 left to play, Pacific (9-5, 2-0 Big West) outscored Cal Poly 12-2 over the next three minutes to turn a close game into a free-throw fest.
The Mustangs defense was buried by 3-pointers as the team scrambled to double down on the post with Will Donahue ineligible to play.
Tigers guards Terrell Smith and Demetrece Young combined to go 8 for 10 from 3-point range as Pacific attacked Cal Poly’s zone defense from the inside out.
“If you blink, if you make two or three mental errors, physical errors, they take advantage of it,” Mustangs head coach Joe Callero said. “And that’s where for us to continue to be competitive at the Big West level, we have to just continue to demand that highest level.”
Even with Donahue, Cal Poly could not afford much room for error since the team’s shortage of height was already exacerbated by the redshirting two 6-foot-10 freshmen.
Without the 6-8 Donahue, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, the center duties are split by 6-6 junior college transfer Will Taylor and 6-8, 215-pound walk-on Ryan Darling.
“Donahue’s a big key to the team,” Keeler said. “He’s a post presence, and tonight we didn’t have that so we were kind of focused on the post more. They were kicking it out and getting wide open shots on the perimeter.”
Donahue was ruled academically ineligible for this quarter but is still appealing the NCAA to get back on the court.
Callero initially expected to have Donahue back by now but seemed unsure Friday whether the sophomore would get back on the court this season.
“I can’t guarantee anything on that,” Callero said. “It’s not really in my hands and a lot of that decision is completely out of Will’s hands.
“I wish I was more optimistic, saying it was going to be cleared up in a day. It could be a week or two weeks. It’s an ongoing issue.
“I can assure you there’s not a recruiting issue. There’s no real controversy outside of getting eligible.”
Coming off a 38-point game at UC Irvine, Keeler led the Mustangs with 18 points. Lewis, who doubled his season 3-point total with a 4-for-4 effort beyond the arc, followed with 17. David Hanson had a career-high 15 points and a team-high six rebounds.
Still, Cal Poly found open shots tough to come by. Pacific had several of Callero’s set plays scouted and had defensive adjustments installed to adapt to each.
“Everywhere I was going, it seemed like my defender was beating me to the spot,” Keeler said. “He knew I was going there. I didn’t get really any open looks tonight and all my attempts were tough.”