Once again, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team was conjuring visions of the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
The Mustangs sank only four baskets from inside the 3-point line at Mott Athletics Center on Thursday night against Hawaii and were almost shockingly in it to the end.
The Rainbow Warriors (16-8, 4-4 Big West Conference) ended up walking away with a 59-56 victory, their first in San Luis Obispo in four visits to Mott, after Ridge Shipley’s off-balance desperation shot went long at the buzzer.
It was reminiscent of a five-point loss to UC Santa Barbara almost a month ago when the Gauchos needed a late collapse by Cal Poly to win. On Thursday, the Mustangs shot only 23.4 percent overall from the floor, easily their worst markof the season.
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The Mustangs (10-11, 3-6 Big West) hit 11 of 23 3-pointers with Joel Awich and Reese Morgan nailing three apiece. Morgan did it after returning from knee swelling that kept him out of last Saturday’s loss at UC Davis. Shipley hit a game-high four 3-pointers.
But Cal Poly struggled mightily from inside. The Mustangs shot just 13.3 percent (4 of 30) on 2-point field goals. A fast-break dunk by David Nwaba and three baskets inside by Brian Bennett comprised Cal Poly’s made buckets inside the 3-point line.
It’s amazing the Mustangs still had a chance to extend the game on the final possession, but there was still a problem aside from the final score, and Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero traced it back to practice.
“I felt like this game was a little bit like we’ve practiced the last two days,” Callero said. “I sensed a little bit of going through the motions, and then you get that way in practice, like ‘Oh, I’ll make that in the game.’
“We have to understand that those A-level performances that consist of 40 minutes of basketball have to be duplicated in the two days of practice. You’re not going to turn it on and concentrate and finish. I don’t feel like we finished in practice well.”
Nwaba’s dunk — which came off a steal by Shipley and was slammed home with just 1:30 left in the first half — was Cal Poly’s first two-pointer of the game. The Mustangs didn’t get their second until Bennett got a putback layup with 12:40 left in the game.
Many more of Cal Poly’s shots from mere feet from the rim, even the wide-open looks, repeatedly rolled harmlessly off the rim.
“You just miss shots sometimes,” Morgan said. “There were a lot of things that were close opportunities that we had that we just missed. I think they did a good job contesting. We might have rushed a couple things, but I have no doubt that next time we’re going to make those shots, most of them.”
Morgan had a team-leading 16 points, including 7 of 8 from the free-throw line. Shipley finished with 12 points and a game-high six assists. Awich had his second career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds and also blocked three shots.
In a span of just 2:34 in the first half, Awich hit a 3-pointer, Shipley hit back-to-back 3s and Awich hit two more to give Cal Poly a 20-16 lead with 6:53 left. Later, the Nwaba dunk would push the lead to six, but Hawaii cut it back down to two at the break.
Then the Warriors surged ahead to lead for most of the second half, growing their advantage to as many as five even though the Mustangs retook the lead four times and tied the score four times in the second half.
Hawaii was led by Mike Thomas, who scored a game-high and career-high 18 points while taking advantage of foul trouble for Bennett and Awich. Thomas was the only Warriors player to score in double digits, but Hawaii did shoot 49 percent from the field overall by the end.
Stefan Jovanovic, Aaron Valdes and Isaac Fleming all scored eight points.
Hawaii’s pressure defense forced Cal Poly into an uncharacteristic 15 turnovers. The Mustangs came into the game ranked second among Division I teams in the nation averaging just 8.5 per game.
Those turnovers directly led to 17 points for the Warriors. Shipley had a game-high five turnovers. The most crushing one for the Mustangs was likely the last. Valdes missed the front end of a one-and-one as Cal Poly trailed 58-56 with 19 seconds left.
The Mustangs blocked off perfectly and Bennett ended up with the rebound, but having to lunge off balance to reach for it, he lost control to Hawaii’s Roderick Bobbitt, who was fouled and pushed the advantage to three by making one of two free throws.
“There was some mistakes that we made on the offensive end with a couple passes that I tried to make, which is not good,” Shipley said, “and then most of their points they can score on turnovers. So, one thing we try to do is keep the turnovers down. They acted on those turnovers and scored points off of it.”