ANAHEIM — Knocking off the top two seeds along the way, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s run in the Big West Conference Tournament is feeling like an epic adventure.
There were more false endings in Friday’s 61-58 semifinal victory over top-seeded UC Irvine than Return of the King.
A win over Cal State Northridge in today’s 7:30 p.m. ESPN 2 Big West Tournament championship game, which would give the Mustangs (12-19) their first ever NCAA Division I Tournament berth, could allow the Cal Poly trilogy rival that of the Lord of the Rings films — in San Luis Obispo anyhow.
“Personally, it was the best game I’ve ever played in because of the emotional swings,” senior forward Chris Eversley said. “It was big. Those last four minutes, after that last media timeout, it seemed like an eternity.”
That media timeout came with 2:55 left and Cal Poly leading by three. UC Irvine quickly cut it to one. The Mustangs had a double-digit lead at 43-33 with 15:32 left and nearly exhausted it all before the end.
Then Kyle Odister hit a 3. David Nwaba snatched a steal and hit two free throws. Eversley grabbed a defensive rebound. The Anteaters turned over the ball.
In the time between the events described in every single one of the sentences in the paragraph above, it felt like the Mustangs had won the game.
Each time, however, UC Irvine (23-11) ended up with the ball and a chance to tie it up. A final 3-pointer by Luke Nelson, one that would have tied the score, went long at the buzzer.
“The greatest part about the game was that we answered the bell each time,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “We built up the lead; they cut away. That’s what the number one seed is going to do. They’re going to push back at you.”
Regardless of what happens today, the Mustangs have already done the unthinkable.
After losing nine of their last 11 regular-season games, being essentially left for dead by many after a blowout loss to UC Santa Barbara in the finale, Cal Poly vanquished the most fearsome monsters in the tournament, Big West Player of the Year Alan Williams of the Gauchos and 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye of the Anteaters, on consecutive nights.
It’s the first time a seventh seed has beaten the top seed in the history of the Big West Tournament. A seventh seed hasn’t won a semifinal game since Fresno State beat No. 3 Pacific in 1991, and that was the only other time.
The Mustangs are the lowest seed to make the title game since UC Irvine made it as the No. 10 seed in 1994. Cal Poly would be the lowest seed to ever win the title if it comes through today.
Why not? The Mustangs seem to be playing at a level unlike any other during the year.
Having gone through enough lengthy scoring droughts this season to consider trademarking the practice, Cal Poly weathered another one in the first half Friday.
Trailing the Anteaters 14-13 with 12:47 left in the first, the Mustangs went cold.
UC Irvine pushed its lead to as many as nine during a 9-4 run that lasted nearly five minutes.
Fittingly, Bennett broke that up with a layup in the post over Ndaiye.
Bennett had 12 points and nine rebounds coming off the bench. His fearless approach down low helped Cal Poly become just the second opponent in 11 games to score 60 or more against the Anteaters.
UC Irvine had earned its big man Defensive Player of the Year honors by funneling drives directly at Ndiaye all season with an extremely effective zone defense.
“Eversley played really well, especially in the paint,” Anteaters head coach Russell Turner said. “Nwaba was really good in the paint and made a lot of mid-range jump shots. Bennett was really good scoring over Mamadou.
“We haven’t had a lot of opponents who were able to score over us the way Cal Poly was consistently able to do tonight. So, they get credit for that, and that’s probably why they won.”
Eversley and Nwaba tied for the team high with 14 points apiece, Eversley added seven rebounds and Nwaba had two steals.
Odister nailed three of his four 3-point attempts and totaled nine points.
Callero said he would take about an hour after the game before turning his attention toward game-planning for the final, which would be the program’s third appearance and the fifth-year coach’s first.
The Mustangs last lost in the 2007 final to Long Beach State. Cal Poly had a double-digit first-half lead in that game before falling 94-83. The Mustangs also lost 57-54 to Utah State in the 2003 title game.
The winner today automatically advances to the NCAA Tournament.
“It would be a huge deal if we went to the tournament this year,” Bennett said, “not only for us as a program but our entire school because walking through campus, every day — even if we’re not wearing Cal Poly clothes on — people will recognize us just from being at the games. We have a great following.”
After a miracle run like this, the Mustangs believe they can complete the run.
“There’s nothing like doing something,” Callero said, “and when you beat a really good team like Santa Barbara soundly, and you beat an excellent team in a conference champion like Irvine, I think it builds confidence, and I think it’s deserved confidence because it’s not luck. It’s a team that has continued to improve and hit the right buttons the right weekend and here we are.”