ST. LOUIS — Believing the Cal Poly men’s basketball team could do the unthinkable in its first NCAA Tournament appearance — that was the easy part.
In trying to become the first No. 16 seed to topple a No. 1, Mustangs head coach Joe Callero might very well have been attempting to lick his own elbow.
And say what you must about the disastrous results, Callero wasn’t aiming to simply keep Cal Poly’s game against undefeated top seed Wichita State close.
The fifth-year coach wanted to extend an illogical weeklong trend of historic feats.
“We went into the game shooting a little early in the clock, doing some things we weren’t traditionally doing because we were playing to win,” Callero said. “And I thought if we just milked the clock and were just hesitant and didn’t play to win, we would have been playing afraid, and they’d just get strong at the end. We said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to take shots.’ ”
The Mustangs (14-20) took them. The problem was, they didn’t make them on their way to a 64-37 loss.
A 3-pointer by senior forward Chris Eversley on Cal Poly’s second possession was the Mustangs’ only made field goal for 12-plus minutes to start the game.
Cal Poly made just one of its first 13 shots from the field and ended the half shooting just 14.3 percent (4 of 28) from the field.
The performance had game analysts scrambling to learn just how poor it really was. Instead of a historic victory, could this be the definitive beating for the ages?
In the end, no.
In 2008, UCLA beat Mississippi Valley State 70-29 in a game where the Dirt Devils’ 19.7-percent shooting mark set a low-water mark and their point total was the most meager since the introduction of the shot clock in the 1950s.
But the Mustangs’ point total and overall 20.7 field-goal percentage only topped those all-time lows with a late-game rally.
Cal Poly didn’t have a scorer in double figures.
Shooting 2 for 14 from the field, Eversley finished with six points. Junior guard Maliik Love was able to score nine with aggressive drives to the hoop in the second half. On 4-of-6 shooting, Love was the lone Mustangs player to shoot better than 22 percent.
Sharpshooters Kyle Odister and Reese Morgan had five points apiece, with each of them draining one 3-pointer.
This hardly resembled the same Cal Poly team that shot 57 percent while powering through Texas Southern in an 81-69 victory at the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday.
The same shots that fell in during an improbable run as the only seventh-place team to win the Big West Tournament title last weekend clanged out.
Playing their fifth game in eight days while traveling between four different cities, Cal Poly was definitely fatigued, but most of the credit goes to the defense of the Shockers, which was deflecting passes and disrupting the Mustangs from the outset.
Wichita State played like the legitimate national title contender that many expect it to be.
“They picked us up defensively pressure-wise,” Odister said. “We couldn’t get the ball where we wanted to on the wing. It made it difficult, so, it kind of made us frantic at times. You just have to take your hat off to Wichita State.”
The poor field-goal shooting even seemed to carry over to the free-throw line.
The Mustangs got to the line 18 times but converted only eight. When the game was still within reach in the first half, Cal Poly went the first seven minutes just 2 for 6 on free throws.
Long-range jumpers were a similar story. The Mustangs finished 5 for 28 on 3-pointers, and while a portion of those were desperation shots to try to get back into the game after a 19-point halftime deficit, just as many fit into Cal Poly’s strategy of taking early shots in an attempt to find good looks against the Shockers’ defense.
“The thing about Wichita State, which is what we want to emulate most in our program,” Callero said, “they very, very rarely take any plays off. Their defensive attention and focus is excellent … as good as there is in college basketball. They have very good players, and they are dialed in. That’s what separates them.
“We took a gamble. We felt as a chance we had to take was take the best shot early in the shot clock or the middle of the shot clock. We would typically like to work it, reverse it, go inside-out, but as the clock goes under 10, they don’t gamble. We watched them against other teams, and we said, ‘You don’t get good shots at the end of the clock.’ ”