Chris O’Brien’s postgame comments Saturday tell everything you need to know about his shooting philosophy.
He had no other choice but to take that first-half 3-pointer in transition. The other 3? Same deal. UC Irvine pulled the trigger, not him.
And with the score tied with 1:14 left Saturday, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team was fortunate that O’Brien was coerced into scoring again.
The senior guard converted a three-point play on a driving layup for the go-ahead points, and the Mustangs never trailed again to hold on for a 72-67 victory over the visiting Anteaters.
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“I saw them pressuring way up there and the middle was wide open,” O’Brien said, “and I just ripped and went down the middle and finished. You’ve got to sometimes take what the defense gives you, and that time I took the drive.”
The former Irvine Northwood High standout took it to his hometown team to the tune of a career-high 16 points, a departure from his usual scoring output.
After missing all of last season with a torn ACL, O’Brien has been an effective distributor from all over the court this year.
Playing everything from shooting guard to power forward, the 6-foot-5 former prep point guard had nearly as many assists (23) coming into the game as field-goal attempts (25) and was averaging just four points.
But don’t try telling any of his Mustangs teammates that he isn’t the glue holding their young team together.
O’Brien “is naturally one of the leaders on the team, so he brings something that most of our team doesn’t have — experience,” said Cal Poly junior forward Chris Eversley, who finished with a game-high 24 points.
“It’s not about the stats for him. He does whatever he needs to do for us to score.”
Sparking the offense off the bench, O’Brien had 11 points in the first half, and Eversley scored 12 to help give the Mustangs (7-6, 3-0 Big West Conference) an 11-point halftime lead.
They’d eventually squander the entire thing and fall behind by as many as six as UC Irvine (7-9, 1-2) rallied for a 25-6 run to start the second half. Seniors Adam Folker (16 points) and Chris McNealy (11) led the scoring surge, and freshman Alex Young poured in 14, including two 3-pointers.
Together with senior Michael Wilder, the Anteaters have a lot of experience. It’s one of the reasons UC Irvine was selected third in the Big West media poll.
“They have great players,” Eversley said. “They’ve played together. They have over 75 games together, and it’s kind of reminiscent of Long Beach last year. When you have the experience, you play well together, and when you’ve had that experience as a team, you make those runs together.”
Cal Poly’s experience also showed.
Despite not shooting since he hit a 3-pointer less than five minutes into the game, fifth-year senior guard Dylan Royer hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Mustangs a 57-56 lead with 5:51 left, ending a nine-minute stretch where UC Irvine held the lead.
From there it was a back-and-forth game, and after O’Brien and Cal Poly point guard Jamal Johnson hit driving layups, the Anteaters came up empty.
Wilder turned the ball over losing his footing on a spin move in the final 35 seconds, and Young missed a wide-open 3-pointer in the corner that would have tied the score with seven seconds left.
Eversley and Johnson made four straight free throws to polish off the victory.
One off his career high, Eversley has scored 20 or more points five times this year after the Mustangs went all off last season without one 20-point scorer.
Royer went 3 for 3 from the field for nine points, Johnson also added nine points with four steals and freshman center Brian Bennett scored eight.
It marks the first 3-0 conference start for Cal Poly since 1996-97, the Mustangs’ first season in the Big West.
One of three seniors on a team with seven freshmen, the next thing O’Brien’s shooting down is any overconfidence.
“It’s big, but we’re smart enough to know there’s 15 games left,” he said. “That’s all that matters. The eye on the prize is the NCAA Tournament.”