DAYTON, Ohio — Cal Poly’s historic postseason run continued Wednesday night nearly 2,200 miles east of where it began.
Winning the Big West Tournament earned the program its first Division I NCAA Tournament bid, and now it can chalk up another first, as the Mustangs defeated the Texas Southern Tigers 81-69 for Cal Poly’s first Division I tournament victory.
“It’s great to make it,” Cal Poly coach Joe Callero said. “But, it’s a lot better to do something once you get there and get a victory.”
Cal Poly is in its 20th year as a Division I basketball program and relished its 16th seed.
“I was celebrating a 16th seed,” Callero said. “This gives us a great opportunity for us to play under the big lights, get onto the court, get a win under our belt.”
He went on to say that the win was more than just about the basketball program, it was also about getting national recognition for the university and the San Luis Obispo area. Then Callero gave the proper pronunciation of San Luis Obispo.
Cal Poly (14-19) is the only team in the field of 68 to have a sub-.500 record and perhaps because of that, some gave the Mustangs little chance to advance past the First Four.
Callero was not one of them.
“It may sound arrogant, but I did,” the fifth-year coach said. “I completely believed in our players the entire time.”
With all the injured players back and the experience of a tough nonconference schedule that included five NCAA Tournament teams, the Mustangs came out firing and hitting on all cylinders against the Tigers (19-15).
The game-deciding bucket came early when Brian Bennett scored on a layup with 6½ minutes elapsed from the clock and the Mustangs had an 18-17 lead. They would not lose that lead and eventually built it to 16 points early in the second half.
Bennett was 5 of 5 from the field in just 10 minutes of action.
The Mustangs were in the midst of their best offensive performance when the first half close. The 44 points they put up was the most they scored in the first half and they hit 54.5 percent of their shots from the field.
“If you move the ball side-to-side, that is the best thing you can do as an offense, because it makes the defense shift,” Chris Eversley said. “It kind of negates the defense’s athleticism. It makes our offense like a well-trained orchestra, because everybody is playing their own individual instrument, but together we sound great.”
The 6-foot-7 senior led the Mustangs with 19 points, while David Nwaba added 17, and Bennett came off the bench with 10.
Cal Poly’s sharpshooting performance continued in the second half, hitting 61.1 percent. The Tigers shot an impressive 52 percent.
The Mustangs entered the game ranked 314th in Division I in shooting, averaging 41 percent, but finished hitting 56.9 percent from the field for their best shooting output this season.
Texas Southern, on the back of Aaric Murray’s game-high 38 points, clawed its way to as close as seven points late in the game, then Cal Poly went on an 8-3 run to close.
“We knew (Murray) was going to get his points either way, so we knew we would just need to take the other players out of the game,” Nwaba said. “That was our plan going in.”
Eversley credited the Mustangs’ ability to remain focused during the second half to close out the game much like they opened it.
“A lot of time throughout the season we had lapses in concentration and we would play about 32-35 minutes a game,” he said. “Sustaining that concentration for that 40 minutes is huge for us. If we want to win, it has to be a full focused effort from everyone on that bench and everyone in that locker room to work 40 minutes. There is time to celebrate after. Take care of business first, and have fun on the plane after.”
The Mustangs are on a four-game winning streak after a 2-9 slide to close out the regular season.
“My last opening statement is if we win the national championship, we’ll have a winning record, 20-19,” Callero said during the pre-tournament press conference. “We’ll have to win seven straight.”
The Mustangs have just six more to go. Next up is Wichita State (34-0) in St. Louis on Friday.
“It was so weird that I was cheering for the last five years that a 16 never upset a one,” Callero said. “Because I said, well, that would be great if we could ever get a bid; we’d probably be a 16 seed, and then we’d have a chance to make real history there.”