ANAHEIM — There was only one way to make the past three nights stand up to the test of time.
And the Cal Poly men’s basketball team turned a curiosity into a fantasy-come-true by completing a magical run to the Big West Conference Tournament championship with a 61-59 victory over Cal State Northridge at Honda Center on Saturday.
The Mustangs (13-19) are headed to the NCAA Division I Tournament for the first time in program history. Their destination will be revealed in the selection show scheduled for 3 p.m. today on CBS.
All signs point toward a berth in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, on either Tuesday or Wednesday since the Mustangs earned their berth in a manner that no one could have predicted.
Not only did seventh-seeded Cal Poly knock off the top two seeds in the first two rounds of the tournament, the Mustangs got the game-winning shot from a true freshman point guard in the final seconds, and a little-used sophomore reserve took the charge that sealed it moments later.
“It would have been a great year to finish with those two wins,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said of improbable upsets of No. 2 UC Santa Barbara and No. 1 UC Irvine on Thursday and Friday, “but this is a historic year now. … If you want to make it historical, you’re going to have to do historical things.”
The Mustangs made history by becoming the first No. 7 seed and the lowest ever to win the Big West Tournament.
The two-point win was the slimmest margin of victory in a Big West final in a decade.
Then there was the shot by Ridge Shipley.
With Cal State Northridge leading 60-59, Shipley pulled up from the top of the key as the clock wound down. The shot spent a split-second rattling in the rim before falling through with 14 seconds left.
“It’s a dream,” Shipley said. “All the hours of hard work, my parents, my trainers, to everyone that’s ever supported me, that shot was destined to go in.”
Shipley scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half, turning it on so late, he failed to gain support for the all-tournament team, whose votes are tallied during the game.
Senior forward Chris Eversley, who tied the Matadors’ Stephen Maxwell for the game high with 18 points, was named the MVP of the tournament.
The senior was 8 for 17 from the floor, popping up on the score sheet seemingly every time Cal State Northridge threatened to take a big lead.
The Matadors led by as many 10 points in the first half. Cal Poly cut it to 29-25 at the break, and from then on neither team led by more than four.
Eversley praised the resiliency of a Mustangs team that lost nine of its last 11 regular-season games coming into the tournament.
Cal Poly answered every crisis with “mental stamina,” Eversley said. “These guys understand that we have to come out and fight. Our job was to go three and out, and we did a good job of doing that.”
Sophomore swingman David Nwaba scored 17 points on an efficient 7 of 8 from the field. He sank the two free throws that cut the lead to one prior to Shipley’s clutch 3.
The fact that he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 opportunity as the Mustangs trailed by two with 1:56 left, Nwaba redeemed that miss and more, joining Eversley on the all-tournament team.
As Northridge drove for the winning score, Tre Hale-Edmerson barreled into sophomore center Zach Gordon, who has started multiple games for Cal Poly but was used sparingly in the first two rounds of the tournament.
Gordon had six rebounds and one point in 20 minutes but made his biggest impact defensively. Though credited with just a steal and no blocks, he swatted at least one Matadors shot and got his hands on several others.
The charge he took fouled Hale-Edmerson out of the game and allowed Kyle Odister to add an insurance point at the free-throw line.
When Odister missed his second free-throw attempt with four seconds left, Cal State Northridge seemed so caught off guard, the Matadors were unable to get off a shot before the clock expired.
While spectators marveled at less experienced players like Shipley and Gordon having such impactful plays, Callero said he’d have believed it before the season.
“We won’t recruit a kid if we don’t believe in him, and we have to believe in them as people,” Callero said. “Chris Eversley, last night after the semifinals, was finishing a paper up at 11:30 while eating dinner. That’s not common. That’s how dedicated they are to being whole people, being student athletes, representing the community. It’s pretty historic.”