ST. LOUIS — The Cal Poly men’s basketball team had people believing anything was possible.
Could the Mustangs be the first No. 16 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament to knock off a No. 1?
The improbable feats that launched Cal Poly into its first appearance in the Big Dance in the 20-year Division I history of the program — and in turn thrust the Mustangs into the national spotlight — certainly inspired wonder if not outright conviction.
Then Cal Poly came face to face with undefeated Wichita State (35-0), the top seed in the Midwest Regional, and the magic quickly faded.
Rendered punchless by a smothering Shockers defense, the Mustangs ended their dream run — which peaked during Wednesday’s dominant victory in the tournament’s opening round — with a deflating 64-37 loss in the round of 64 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
“We had people believing because we believed,” fifth-year Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said, “but you’re not going to pull it off by shooting 20 percent.
“The only disappointment is we want to represent Cal Poly and the Central Coast and the Big West Conference better. We didn’t do as well as we could have done.”
Though the Mustangs took a 3-0 lead on a 3-pointer by senior leader Chris Eversley to start the game, what followed was a scoring drought rivaled only by the historic low precipitation figures back home.
The Mustangs totaled just 13 points in the first half and were on track to set all-time Tournament lows for field-goal percentage and points in the shot-clock era.
They rebounded in the second half to avoid those notorious distinctions.
Junior guard Maliik Love had a team-high nine points off the bench. Eversley scored six, and Kyle Odister and Reese Morgan scored five apiece.
But as much as Cal Poly had become a media darling with its underdog run to the conference title and subsequent victory in its NCAA opener, the pendulum swung back in kind.
The Mustangs were a trending topic on Twitter during Wednesday’s 81-69 victory over Texas Southern at the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, for their dominant performance.
On Friday, the masses were back to wondering who Cal Poly was and why it deserved to be here.
At just 14-20 on the season, Cal Poly had the most losses of any in the 68-team field and landed at the bottom when the NCAA released its power rankings on Selection Sunday.
The university’s yawn-inducing CBS debut might not sit well with the national television audience, but a stunning run that saw the Mustangs become the first seventh-place team to ever win the Big West Tournament has cemented their spot in San Luis Obispo lore.
Cal Poly lost nine of its last 11 regular-season games going into the conference tournament, then proceeded to topple the top two seeds in the Big West tournament, including a 31-point drubbing of arch rival UC Santa Barbara. The conference championship earned the team a first-ever bid in the NCAA Tournament, and the Mustangs didn’t disappoint in their opener, beating Texas Southern handily, 81-69.
The overall record and the season in general was less than impressive, but what a finish it was. The Mustangs won four of their last five games in an eight-day span, and the odds stacked against them made the story all the more compelling.
“When I first got here, we had a 10-19 record,” fifth-year senior guard Kyle Odister said, “and I’ve seen the program elevate every year. And now we made it to the tournament as I leave as a senior. I left my stamp on Cal Poly, and I feel proud.”
Despite a loss that inspired a few snide comments, Callero and the Mustangs educated many on the native pronunciation of the university’s hometown during national media appearances — and how it was nowhere near Pomona to boot.
“Just because we lost the game tonight,” Eversley said, “it’s not going to take away from people knowing who we are. No matter what happens, our name is going to be on the NCAA bracket, and people are going to ask about us. So, it’s our job to just make sure we’re back in it next year.”