This time, it didn’t matter how many late 3-pointers were drained by the visitors in Mott Gym. The Cal Poly men’s basketball team had the answers.
Two days after faltering in the final seven minutes in a neck-and-neck game with Pacific when the Tigers made back-to-back long-range jumpers, the Mustangs withstood three desperation 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds by UC Davis to pull out their first Big West Conference win at home in nearly two years Sunday. David Hanson beat the shot clock with a fade-away jumper that tied the score with less than 3 minutes left, then added a layup in the final minute to help seal a 72-69 victory. Lorenzo Keeler scored a team-high 22 points for Cal Poly (5-9, 2-1 Big West) and Ryan Darling had a double-double filling in for Will Donahue at center.
The Aggies (6-10, 2-2 Big West) were down 67-60 with 33 seconds left and got back within one with the 3-pointers before Mustangs sophomore point guard Justin Brown, who had a season-high 12 points, cinched the win with two free throws in the final second.
“We feel real good,” Keeler said. “We played Pacific tough. They pulled it out, but we played them tough and they’re No. 1 right now in the conference. We miss Donahue. We wish we had him, but we have to keep going forward, and tonight Ryan Darling had a double-double. People keep stepping up. I think we’re going to be fine.”
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Hanson had a career-high 16 points, all but two of which came in the second half after he started the first half shooting just 1 for 7 from the floor. The 6-foot-5 sophomore swingman was 6 for 7 after the break and did most of his damage in or near the paint.
Darling, a 6-7 senior walk-on who worked his way up from being team manager three seasons ago, had career highs with 10 points and 12 rebounds. He had scored just 12 career points before Sunday and was averaging 1.3 points and 2.4 rebounds per game this season.
“Since I’ve began my college experience, not even making the team the first time I tried out, I’ve always been the underdog with that, so I’m used to the negative preconceptions,” said Darling, who played just 29 minutes all of his junior season in 2008-09. “But just being a part of my team coming out there and giving it my all, that’s all I have to do.”
The unexpected breakout game by Darling helped negate the fact that Cal Poly is still without Donahue, the starting center who averaged 11.8 points and 8.8 rebounds through the first 10 games but has missed the past four with an academic eligibility issue.
Donahue is still in an appeal to regain his eligibility, but Mustangs coach Joe Callero said he doesn’t know when the 6-8 sophomore junior college transfer will be able to rejoin the team if at all this season. Based on its results, however, Cal Poly has not been completely lost without Donahue.
UC Davis big man Dominic Calegari did hurt the Mustangs, pouring in 23 points and grabbing six rebounds. He had 16 points in the first half alone and was 5 for 5 in the paint.
But the short-handed Mustangs outrebounded the Aggies 29-27, and the victory tied Callero’s team for second in the conference standings.
Most Big West teams have played just three games, but for a squad that was picked to finish last in the preseason coaches’ poll and hasn’t won a Big West game at home since an overtime victory over UC Irvine on Feb. 28, 2008, Cal Poly is feeling good.
“Saying we’re 2-1 in conference play,” Callero said, “we’ve already got three home court victories. We’re 3-2 in Mott Gym. We’re not seeing a team that goes ‘oh darn’ and has a pity party. We hung with the Big West Conference leader to seven minutes without our starting center.
“We’re getting better. Our bottom line is we’ve improved.”
From here, the Mustangs go back on the road. Cal Poly visits Cal State Fullerton (7-7, 2-1 Big West), with the winner holding on to at least a piece of second place, then Long Beach State (7-9, 1-2 Big West), the conference front-runner coming into the season.
The Mustangs will then play host to UC Riverside (7-8, 1-2 Big West) and Cal State Northridge (4-10, 0-3 Big West) before wrapping up the first half of conference play at UC Santa Barbara (8-6, 3-1 Big West), who moved all alone into first place with a 68-67 win over Pacific (9-6, 2-1 Big West) on Sunday.
Through barely one week of conference play, every Big West team has at least one loss.
Prior to the season, one of Callero’s two main goals, along with a winning record at home, was to climb at least one spot out of the Big West cellar. Though still early, it looks like the Mustangs can compete for much better than that, despite being undermanned.
“I think we can keep the pace up,” Callero said. “Where can we finish in conference play? I think we’ll have a much better idea once we play everyone.”