When point guard Maliik Love went down with a broken foot in preseason practice, Cal Poly men’s basketball head coach Joe Callero tabbed Drake U’u as the new backup behind starter Jamal Johnson.
For the 6-foot-5 Sacramento product, that meant becoming a point forward.
Nevermind the fact that U’u — coming into his senior year — had no experience running the offense from the point.
Earning his first start more than midway through the season, U’u led the Mustangs to their most potent game of the season Thursday night, an 88-59 drubbing of visiting Hawaii at Mott Gym.
“He’s a guy I’ve been nurturing for three months,” Callero said. “He got a starting bid, and we’re playing the best 40 minutes of the year against a very good team.”
U’u had career highs in points and rebounds, redshirt freshman Reese Morgan continued his hot streak, Chris Eversley scored a game-high 19 points and Cal Poly (8-9, 4-3 Big West Conference) beat Hawaii 38-21 on the boards to neutralize the hefty size advantage of the Warriors (10-9, 4-4 Big West).
U’u scored 16 points and dished out a game-high eight assists while turning the ball over just once in 28 minutes. With him leading the way from the start, the Mustangs jumped out to a 14-4 lead and continued to press their advantage the entire game.
“This is my first year really running the point,” U’u said. “Coach has really worked with me on developing that aspect of my game, getting the guys on the same page, making sure I’m communicating with everybody and making sure I’m continuously attacking and trying to stay aggressive.”
Callero said U’u’s promotion to the starting lineup is intended to be lasting and not just a matchup-driven decision against Hawaii, which featured three players 6-foot-8 or taller in the starting lineup.
Morgan, another recent addition to the Mustangs’ starters, scored 16 points, including four 3-pointers. After scoring 26 points against UC Santa Barbara in his first career start Saturday, Morgan was 6 of 11 from the floor, including 4 of 8 from 3-point range.
After missing all of last season with a knee injury, the former Parade All-America selection his senior year of high school has found a way to translate his prep success to the college level.
After taking time to adjust, he’s now very confident about shooting situations.
“The first half of the season,” Morgan said, “I wasn’t getting up as many shots. As you adjust to college basketball, you have to learn what shots are open, where they’re going to be open and how to get open.
“I feel like the first half of the season really helped me adjust about when I’m going to get shots.”
Another freshman coming into his own, center Brian Bennett had a career-high 17 points in a marquee matchup with Hawaii big man Vander Joaquim, who recently surpassed the 1,000-point mark in his Warriors career.
Bennett had nine rebounds, including four offensive boards, against Joaquim, who was just 1 for 4 from the floor for two points and one rebound after coming into the game 14.5 points and 8.7 rebounds.
Coming into the game leading Hawaii with 14.7 points per game, Christian Standhardinger finished tied for a team high with Isaac Fotu with 14 points, but Standhardinger missed his only field-goal in the first half as the Mustangs led 38-26 at halftime.
Despite the Warriors’ size advantage, Cal Poly held a 14-9 edge in offensive rebounds by the end of the game, signaling a dominance that few expected on paper.
“We caught them at a great time,” Callero said. “It’s a tired team. You could see the fatigue that they had in their legs and their eyes and their body.”
“Our point was to be that aggressive and to chase down offensive boards and to make them have to defend and move the ball and try to take their legs out of them, and I think we proved we were the fresher team tonight.”