ANAHEIM — It’s not jarring enough to say nobody saw this coming.
This was more akin to the blind side of someone’s wildest dream winning the lottery.
Five days after getting thoroughly whipped by its rival on its own home floor, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team came back in the conference tournament with a performance absurd enough to strain the eyebrow muscles of anyone with even a passing interest in Big West Conference basketball.
The Mustangs booted UC Santa Barbara with a 69-38 victory in the first round of the Big West Tournament at Honda Center in Anaheim on Thursday. Now they advance to face UC Irvine in the semifinals today at 6:30 p.m.
With Cal Poly (11-19) on a three-game slide coming in, there wasn’t much reason to believe a win was possible, let alone one so dominating. Then again, who was calling the Mustangs’ upset of No. 11 UCLA last season?
“The only thing I can really think of is kind of how we were the underdogs coming into this one, kind of like UCLA last year,” sophomore center Joel Awich said, “how no one thought we could do it.
“But as long as we have each others’ back, and we know we can do it, then I think we can beat anybody any day on the court.”
At least one trend did not favor the Gauchos (21-9).
The Big West’s No. 7 seed has now toppled the No. 2 in three of the past four years at the Big West Tournament. In fact, the
No. 2 seed has gone down in its first game in Anaheim in six of the past seven seasons, including the Mustangs in 2011.
Still, having won three straight coming in, including a 71-55 rout over Cal Poly last Saturday, some Las Vegas oddsmakers had UC Santa Barbara as the favorite to win the tournament.
It’s not a wholly unfamiliar occurrence when an underdog sends the favorite home. Look no further than Seton Hall’s last-second victory over Villanova in Thursday’s quarterfinals of the Big East Conference Tournament or the aforementioned two-point Mustangs win at Pauley Pavilion.
However, there is no familiar colloquialism for when the heavy favorite gets historically clobbered.
It was not only the largest margin of defeat for the Gauchos this season; it’s the worst loss ever for UC Santa Barbara at the Big West Tournament.
Only a 28-point defeat to then-top-ranked and unbeaten UNLV in the 1991 Big West Tournament even comes close.
Only, Cal Poly doesn’t have a Larry Johnson. Not a Stacey Augmon nor a Greg Anthony.
So what happened? There’s hardly a paper trail to follow.
The Mustangs didn’t truly feature an individual standout. Freshman point guard Ridge Shipley scored a team-high 15 points, racking up much of that as the clock wound down in backup duty during the second half.
Awich and David Nwaba each had 11 points for Cal Poly. No one else scored double digits. Awich had a team-high six rebounds, and Kyle Odister nailed three 3-pointers.
“Statistically, you don’t look at one thing that jumps out on the page,” Cal Poly coach Joe Callero said. “If you told us Ridge Shipley would be your leading scorer and played 21 minutes as a backup point guard and we won by 30, we’d all fall out of our chairs.
“If you do everything really well — screening, ball fakes, passing catching shooting reversing it, sharing it — magical things can happen.”
UC Santa Barbara guard Michael Bryson led all scorers with 19 points, including five 3-pointers.
But that was not nearly enough as Cal Poly shrugged off an early 7-0 deficit to take a commanding 41-20 halftime lead spurred by timely 3-point shooting and aggressive perimeter defense.
“They punked us,” Bryson said, “offensively and defensively the entire game, and we didn’t respond. We didn’t do anything to get back on defense. We didn’t do the things we needed to do. Our team just got punked.”
The Mustangs found the secret to limiting Big West Player of the Year Alan Williams inside.
Instead of sagging help from the outside, Cal Poly got in the face of would-be post entry passers, slowing the process enough to bring requisite help from the weak side.
Williams still had 14 points and 10 rebounds but shot just 7 of 17 from the floor and fouled out in frustration with more than seven minutes remaining.
He wasn’t nearly the dominant force that had 23 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in last week’s victory or who scored 33 points in a matchup with the Mustangs earlier this season.
For Cal Poly, it might have been more about the numbers that didn’t appear. The Mustangs had just five turnovers, a statistic that helped them sap the clock in the second half.
Cal Poly was also whistled for just 12 personal fouls. They had 18 in Saturday’s loss, and several big men were in foul trouble early defending Williams. Not so Thursday.
When the Mustangs had to protect their 21-point halftime lead, Nwaba helped keep up the intensity with a driving dunk or acrobatic play, then followed with the kind of demonstrative display to pump up his teammates.
“On the court, I’m just completely different,” said Nwaba, who might be the most reserved interviewee on the roster. “There’s just so much adrenaline going on. I’m so into winning, I just let my voice be heard.
“It just brings out a whole different me.”
Now, Cal Poly can feel like a contender. The Mustangs started the conference season 3-0 and were just one buzzer-beater away from opening 5-0 in the Big West. Despite a midseason swoon that included multiple losses to conference cellar dwellers, all of the early swagger has returned.
“We feel confident, and a game like this is huge for us,” said senior forward Chris Eversley, who left the game with a cut above his eyebrow but returned with no ill effects. “It’s good for guys to be under pressure because it shows you who’s really made for this.”