ANAHEIM — The thing about close games, they’re just as easy to lose as they are to win, and the Cal Poly men’s basketball team was on the wrong end of one at the wrong time.
In a game where neither team led by more than a couple baskets, Pacific’s Travis Fulton tipped in the game-winning putback with 1.3 seconds left, and the second-seeded Tigers advanced to the Big West Conference Tournament final with a 55-53 victory over the No. 3 Mustangs late Friday night at Honda Center.
With his strongest supporters, university president Jeffrey Armstrong included, sporting black felt mustaches in the stands, Cal Poly senior guard Dylan Royer had a look at an open 3-pointer in the final minute, but his shot fell short, went off the Mustangs’ hands and dribbled out of bounds to set up the final sequence.
“It’s coming off now, I’ll tell you that much,” Royer said of the facial hair. “It was a fun thing while it lasted.”
The defeat ended a six-game winning streak for Cal Poly (18-13), which end in the semifinals for the second year in a row under fourth-year head coach Joe Callero and winds up short of its first NCAA berth in program history.
But Mustangs athletic director Don Oberhelman said before the game that the school could be in line for an invite to one of the lesser-known postseason tournaments.
With head coach Bob Thomason set to retire after this season as the winningest coach in Big West history, Pacific moves on to face UC Irvine in the final today at 7:30. The Anteaters upset No. 1 Long Beach State 67-60 earlier in the night.
Nursing a head cold, junior forward Chris Eversley scored a team-high 12 points and grabbed five rebounds, senior guard Chris O’Brien scored 11 with five rebounds and Royer ended with 10 points, including two 3-pointers.
Feasting on pick-and-pop jumpers, Tony Gill had a game-high 20 for Pacific, including a 4-for-4 effort on 3-pointers, and Fulton finished with 12.
After Royer went 5 for 5 from 3-point range, and Eversley had a subpar game in the quarterfinal victory over UC Davis on Thursday, the roles were reversed in the first half Friday against the Tigers.
Royer was 0 for 3 on 3s, including a block on a desperation shot to end the half, and Eversley was tied for the game high with seven points, including a slam dunk in the early going.
Pacific was 8 of 23 from the field in the first half, and Cal Poly was 2 of 11 from 3-point range, but because of the cold shooting, neither team was able to take advantage.
The biggest lead held by either team in the first half was four points, and for the final 10:30, they were never separated by more than two.
The Mustangs went into the break with a 23-21 lead a day after leading the Aggies 21-19 at halftime. Total, there were 18 lead changes in the game and 14 ties.
“That’s been us for four years,” Callero said. “We’re not a high-octane team, we’re a controlling defensive-rebounding and execution team, and it’s worked very well for us.”