Two years ago, Deuce Johnson came to Cal Poly on a recruiting visit.
The 6-foot-7 junior from North Hollywood went elsewhere after transferring from Louisiana Tech and eventually wound his way to Cal State Fullerton after a pit stop at Central Wyoming last season.
But Johnson made a lasting friendship with Mustangs star Chris Eversley while he was in San Luis Obispo, which made it all the more interesting when Eversley blew by his buddy for the clinching score in Cal Poly’s 62-60 victory over the Titans on Saturday.
“It wasn’t anything that I looked at personally too much,” said Eversley, who drove against Johnson and converted a left-handed layup to give the Mustangs a four-point cushion with 14 seconds left. “It was just a matter of making a play when my team needed me to.
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“Everything kind of worked out perfectly.”
Perfect being the key word.
With the victory, Cal Poly (17-12, 12-6 Big West Conference) finished the Big West season undefeated at Mott Gym for the first time in program history, and the Mustangs had plenty more to celebrate, too.
They extended their conference home winning streak to 14 games and their overall win streak to five. Cal Poly, which finished 13-1 at home overall, set a program record for single-season home victories since moving to Division I in 1994-95.
The Mustangs finished alone in third in the conference standings and head into Thursday’s opening round of the Big West Tournament as the No. 3 seed in the eight-team bracket. They’ll play No. 6 UC Davis at Honda Center in Anaheim 30 minutes after the game between No. 2 Pacific and No. 7 UC Santa Barbara, which tips off at noon.
The Tigers wrapped up the No. 2 seed by beating Long Beach State before Cal Poly’s game even started Saturday.
But that didn’t cause the Mustangs to ease up in a back-and-forth victory where neither team led by more than five points.
“We wanted to be undefeated here,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “We didn’t hold anything back. We wanted to have a five-game winning streak going into the tournament. Winning creates winning.”
Eversley tied for the team high with 14 points and led the Mustangs with seven rebounds. His roommate, senior guard Chris O’Brien, also scored 14 and converted a tie-breaking three-point play with 2:04 left that gave Cal Poly the lead for good.
One of three seniors to start the game, including point guard Drake U’u and shooting guard and former Morro Bay High standout Dylan Royer, O’Brien hit his only 3-point attempt, went 5 of 9 from the floor and nearly dunked in a layup on a fast break in the second half.
His final game at Mott Gym was also one of his best since tearing his ACL just prior to last season.
“I’ve always had some little health issues the last couple years,” O’Brien said, “and it’s bittersweet that it’s now, but this is the best I’ve felt in my whole body. I’m really taking care of it, and today is just showing it’s now all together at the right time.”
Cal State Fullerton (14-17, 6-12 Big West), which played only seven players, was led by Kwame Vaughn and Alex Harris, who each poured in 22 points.
The Titans led 35-33 at the half after Vaughn scored 17 before the break, including three 3-pointers.
U’u tied the score on a layup on the first possession of the second half, and O’Brien converted his
3-pointer and a tip-in on back-to-back trips to give Cal Poly a five-point lead less than three minutes into the half.
Brian Bennett and Jamal Johnson scored eight points apiece for Cal Poly.
Deuce Johnson finished with six, coming up with a big block of Bennett and two buckets in the paint after a controversial flagrant foul was issued against him for an elbow to O’Brien’s head.
There did not seem to be any ill will between the teams. Johnson even took his time greeting each Cal Poly player prior to tipoff.
“He’s a great kid, a great personality and a great basketball player,” Eversley said. “To see him being successful at another school as a Division I transfer, that’s good to see.”