ANAHEIM — There were only two players to score in double figures in the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s Big West Tournament-opening victory against UC Davis.
Only two players on the court grew mustaches in anticipation of the third-seeded Mustangs’ 64-41 victory over the Aggies on Thursday at Honda Center.
Those two were two and the same.
Coincidence? Not when the Cal Poly senior duo of Dylan Royer and Drake U’u said it helped them relax in the most pressure-packed environment of the season.
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“Mustaches for us is almost like a haven from all the pressure,” said Royer, who scored a game-high 17 points after his freshly minted mustache inspired a minor flurry on Twitter when viewers immediately noticed it on the FoxSports Prime Ticket broadcast.
“We know how important all these games are, but the fact that we’re just having fun with each other and doing it as kind of a joking, good-luck thing, it kind of takes the pressure off us. We can just treat it like another game and have fun, and that translates to better play.”
U’u scored 10 points, and Royer was 5 for 5 from 3-point range to help the Mustangs (18-12) outscore the sixth-seeded Aggies (14-17) by 22 points in the second half.
Compartmentalizing the silliness of the facial hair, Cal Poly is bringing a quiet confidence to the semifinals of the tournament this season.
The Mustangs will play Pacific at 9 tonight, a year after losing an emotional grudge match to arch rival UC Santa Barbrara in the semifinal round.
This time around, they’re hungry to advance to the championship game for what would be the first time in the tenure of fourth-year head coach Joe Callero.
“We’re just more businesslike now,” Callero said. “We’re loose. We’re focused. We have fun, but there’s higher expectations. These guys have been through it a little bit, and they know that just wining the first game isn’t much of a celebration.”
Said U’u: “I didn’t want the season to end. I know we have a great team, and we have high expectations for ourselves. I really wanted to start off pushing the tempo and playing aggressive.”
UC Davis appeared to be the more aggressive team in the first five minutes when the Aggies started on a 5-0 run. Even after Cal Poly caught up, the Mustangs struggled to 28 percent shooting — 7 of 25 — from the field in the first half.
The pace slowed to a crawl, and Cal Poly held on to a 20-19 lead that was partly made possible by a Kyle Odister 3-pointer from NBA range.
It was one of the few highlights for a pair of teams that combined to shoot just 13 for 39 before the break.
For the Mustangs veterans, an adjustment to a cavernous pro arena was almost expected.
“We knew in the first half when we didn’t shoot well, it could be first-game jitters,” Royer said. “We haven’t played in this arena all year. It’s new for a lot of guys, this kind of atmosphere.
“So we kind of talked about it amongst the players at halftime. We’ll start flowing. We’ll start feeling more at home. We’ll get used to the rims and the background, and that’s what happened.”
Freshman center Brian Bennett had eight points and a game-high nine rebounds for Cal Poly, which also got seven points apiece from junior forward Chris Eversley and junior point guard Jamal Johnson. Eversley added six rebounds, and Johnson had four assists and no turnovers.
UC Davis’ leading scorer was Ryan Sypkens, who finished with nine points, including two 3-pointers.
But the Mustangs held the nation’s leading 3-point percentage shooter to a 2-for-9 effort from long range.
And the Aggies’ Corey Hawkins, the Big West’s leading scorer at 20.9 points per game, was held to 0-for-5 shooting and made only one free throw in the first half. Hawkins did not hit his first shot from the floor until five minutes into the second half. He scored six points before leaving the game with an apparent leg injury with 8:51 left.
By that point, Cal Poly already had a 49-32 lead. UC Davis’ 41 points are the fewest allowed by Cal Poly all season, and it came against an Aggies squad averaging 72.3 points and leading the Big West shooting 47.6 percent from the field.
“When you’re going against the leading field-goal percentage shooting team in the conference, and you’re going against the leading scorer in the conference,” Callero said, “you have to pay special attention.
“We did a very good job of that in the first half. What I was nervous about at half is were we going to get a little full of ourself and not remember that the defensive side of the ball has got to be a constant.”