Exit David Nwaba; enter Ridge Shipley. And the Cal Poly men’s basketball team didn’t just hang on to beat CSUN, the Mustangs took the victory.
Shipley scored a career-high 26 points to lead all scorers, including 19 points in the first half, to make up for Cal Poly being without ill leading scorer Nwaba, and the Mustangs pulled away late for a 70-63 victory over the Matadors at Mott Athletics Center on Thursday.
During a three-minute span in the first half, Shipley hit two 3-pointers, made a driving score and sank two free throws as part of a 25-6 run that gave Cal Poly a 19-point lead. The sophomore guard came into the game averaging just 6.4 points.
“I thought it was the best half of basketball, clearly, he’s ever played here,” Mustangs head coach Joe Callero said, “but I think it’s the best half of basketball a point guard has played for us in my six years here, and the reason I say that is not because he made buckets but the timing of when he took them.”
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Shipley took shots within the flow of the offense, Callero said, and he made them look easy. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come for Shipley, whose previous career high of 21 points came in a Nov. 21 victory over Delaware.
The Texas native burst onto the scene by hitting the game-winning 3-pointer in the final minute against CSUN in last year’s Big West Conference Tournament title game, sending the Mustangs to their first NCAA Tournament.
Could this be the next step in the evolution of a premier scorer?
“I wouldn’t say it was something that would never happen again,” Shipley said of his scoring output. “It’s something I’m capable of doing, and when I have the right shots and my teammates set me up, I can always knock down good shots. So, when that happens, it can happen anytime.”
Averaging a team-leading 12.5 points, Nwaba is expected to also miss Saturday’s home game against Long Beach State before having his viral infection reevaluated for the following week’s road trip.
While the Mustangs (11-11, 4-6 Big West) have struggled to score in recent games — their lone first-half two-point field goal in last week’s 59-56 loss to Hawaii being a Nwaba dunk — one would have thought they’d miss him more.
That wasn’t the case early on. Cal Poly shot 47.8 percent from the floor in the first half Thursday, leading the Matadors 33-19 at the break.
Joel Awich had 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots, and Reese Morgan came off the bench to score 16 and dish out a team-leading three assists in 23 minutes while starter Maliik Love totaled eight points and eight rebounds.
Michael Bolden replaced Nwaba in the starting lineup and scored just one point and missed all four of his field-goal attempts but spearheaded a defensive effort that limited CSUN to 9-of-29 field-goal shooting in the first half.
“It’s tough not having Dave,” Shipley said. “He brings a lot of energy when he gets up and down the floor and on defense, but we had Mike step in. I thought he did a really good job on defense and keeping the momentum for us.”
Led by 18 points from Stephan Hicks and 16 apiece from Stephen Maxwell and Aaron Parks, the Matadors (6-20, 2-9 Big West) fought back to eventually cut Cal Poly’s lead to three with 6:23 left.
CSUN initially used a 17-5 run to pull to within 40-36 with 11:13 to go before getting within three twice in the next six minutes.
“They had the momentum going in the second half,” Awich said. “They were making shots, and we weren’t, and we were definitely getting sluggish on defense. It was kind of like a wake-up call. Once they got it down to three, we were like, ‘Well, come on guys, we’ve got to step it up. We’ve got to defend home court,’ and I thought our energy picked up at the right time.”
Then a string of consecutive layups by Love, Shipley and Morgan pushed it back to nine in less than two minutes, and Morgan got the lead back to double digits with a pair of free throws.
“We didn’t have the head-hanging,” Callero said, “or the playing-not-to-lose. We played determined to find a way to win. I do think that was critical.”
CSUN never relented, even when Cal Poly moved back ahead by 14 in the final three minutes. The Matadors slowed the game down with fouls, and pressure defense, and that’s when tempers began to flare.
Perhaps with some bad blood left over from that Big West Tournament final, action began to get more physical, which led officials to warn both teams to tone it down.
The intensity only heightened, leading to a technical foul against Parks after he shoved Shipley after the whistle in the final two minutes. Bolden was given a technical after emphat- ically blocking a CSUN shot with less than a minute to go.
“Ever since the tournament, it’s always an emotional game” against CSUN, Awich said. “This one was really a test of toughness. They weren’t going to back down. Credit to them. They came back and they fought hard and they really pushed us to the edge.”