For his first year-and-a-half with the Cal Poly men’s basketball team, it never occurred to David Nwaba to take a 3-pointer.
Why shoot from long range when you could drive the lane for a layup?
The junior forward has since added an outside shot to his arsenal, but he didn’t need it Thursday as the Mustangs (9-8, 2-3 Big West Conference) broke a three-game losing streak with a 66-55 victory over Cal State Fullerton (8-11, 0-4 Big West).
Nwaba scored a team-leading 18 points without having to attempt a 3, junior forward Joel Awich had a career game at both ends of the floor, and Cal Poly made sure they wouldn’t blow another big lead with a couple of collapses still fresh in its mind.
“They did a good job of staying close to me,” said Nwaba, who took his first six career 3-pointers in two games last week against sagging defenses. “So, I had to be aggressive going to the rack.
“I prefer going to the rim and just being aggressive and seeing what I can get, from a floater or just dishing to my teammates.”
After blowing leads of nine or more late in the second half against both UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State — and a halftime lead over CSUN on the road last week — the Mustangs returned to Mott Athletics Center determined to change their attitudes when playing with a lead.
Instead of a tentative, clock-sapping game, Cal Poly pledged to attack, draw fouls and put pressure on the opposing defense.
The Mustangs led 26-22 at the break, the seventh straight game Cal Poly has held a halftime lead, and opened the second half on a 13-2 run that pushed the lead to 15 just three minutes into the half.
The Titans, who were led by Steve McClellan’s 12 points and 12 rebounds, eventually made a run to cut it to five with 5:25 left, but in response, Nwaba turned a steal into a three-point play on the fast break, and Awich followed with his own three-point play down low to get the advantage back up to double digits.
“Both of those were exactly what we were looking for,” Mustangs head coach Joe Callero said. “Don’t try to answer with a soft shot or a pass around the perimeter. You have to answer with a drive to the hoop, an aggressive play.”
The strategy worked. Cal Poly scored more than 50 points for the first time in four games, and the Mustangs shot better than 40 percent from the field for the first time since beating IPFW on Dec. 30.
“It certainly wasn’t any game adjustment,” Callero said. “It was the practices that we had, individual meetings where we talked about being aggressive, staying aggressive with your body and your mind. You just have to keep pushing the ball, keep driving at them.”
For Nwaba, who also had a team-leading seven rebounds, it was one of three fast-break baskets he engineered off of his game-high three steals, including a second-half break finished off by a two-handed slam.
Awich had career highs with 17 points and a game-high four blocks. He was 8 of 16 from the field, which was a career-high in field-goal attempts as well.
Junior center Brian Bennett added 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the field and 5 of 8 from the line to give Cal Poly a trio of players in double figures, but Awich was clearly a catalyst.
Awich had a game-high eight points at the break and scored most of those right off the bat. He had six of Cal Poly’s first 10 points as the Mustangs opened the game with a 12-3 run.
Then Awich hit a jumper to start the second half, too.
“It’s just that I like to be aggressive,” Awich said. “They try to get me to be aggressive early and set the tone in the game, give us some energy and just feed off that.
“I’m getting more confidence, which is a big part of my game. Confidence is something I didn’t have last year.”