The Cal Poly men’s basketball team has figured out it doesn’t have to let every game be determined in the final minute, and Joel Awich is a revelation all his own.
The junior forward scored a career-high 19 points, including a career-high four 3-pointers in a continued late-season bloom, and the Mustangs pulled away from their second straight opponent late in Saturday’s 71-58 victory over Long Beach State.
Cal Poly led the 49ers (13-14, 7-4 Big West Conference) by as many as 15 points before Long Beach State battled back to take a one-point lead midway through the second half.
But the Mustangs (12-11, 5-6 Big West) answered every run with one of their own to pull off the upset.
It was an oddly similar theme to Thursday’s 70-63 win over CSUN where Cal Poly’s 19-point lead was whittled to just three in that seven-point victory.
“Every game is a learning game,” said Awich, who has scored double figures in 10 straight games. “You learn from it, and this time, I think we were more prepared for that run that they had. It’s a game of runs. They had a few good runs, they definitely punched us in the mouth, and it’s how we responded.”
When the 49ers took their only lead of the second half, 50-49 on a 3-pointer by Tyler Lamb with 9:24 left, Reese Morgan, who finished with a season-high 18 points, hit back-to-back 3s to immediately get Cal Poly back up by five.
Long Beach State cut it to three on a tip dunk by Eric McKnight with 7:35 left, but Awich drove and converted a three-point play, and Brian Bennett, who scored 10, hit a jumper to get the lead back to eight.
Six was as close as the 49ers would get again, but with Long Beach State looking to further cut into the lead with 3:22 left, Morgan drew an offensive foul and hit a 3-pointer on the next possession to get the advantage back to double digits for good.
It was a complete about-face from the teams’ meeting in Long Beach last month. Cal Poly led that game by nine with 11:53 remaining and ended up losing after allowing the game-winning shot in the final seconds.
The Mustangs had similar experiences in home losses to UC Santa Barbara and Hawaii and in overtime at conference-leading UC Davis.
“We knew we always could do it,” Morgan said. “I just didn’t think we put it together yet. And it was huge for us to see what it takes. What we had to do was keep our composure and come back with our own push. We got the last push and got the win with it.”
The Mustangs outrebounded Long Beach State 40-23, including 15-8 in offensive boards. Cal Poly turned those extra offensive possessions into only four second-chance points, but the dominant rebounding built momentum and helped tire out the 49ers’ defense.
After a three-game losing streak dropped Cal Poly into seventh place, the Mustangs’ two victories this week have them 11⁄2 games out of fourth with five regular-season games left.
More impressively, Cal Poly has done it with leading scorer David Nwaba sidelined indefinitely with an illness.
Mustangs head coach Joe Callero came into the week eagerly counting the days in which Nwaba might be able to rejoin the team after recovering from a viral infection. With the recent success, the urgency to rush him back into the lineup has eased.
“We don’t know when he’s going to come back,” Callero said. “He’s got a process to come back. He’s missed two weeks. It’ll take a couple practices. We’ll start with him on the bench. “We’ve got to be concerned about how to bring him back, but we certainly welcome him back, want him back.”
Sophomore point guard Ridge Shipley followed up his career-high, 26-point scoring performance Thursday with 14 points, including 3 of 8 from 3-point range, but Awich was the biggest difference-maker.
Awich grabbed seven rebounds to go with his team-leading 34th blocked shot of the season. Most remarkable was his accuracy beyond the arc, which has shown marked improvement late in the year.
After going into conference play shooting just 12.5 percent (2 for 16) from 3-point range, Awich has caught fire. He leads Cal Poly in Big West play shooting 48.6 percent (18 of 37) on 3-pointers to up his season percentage to 37.7 from deep.
His overall shooting percentage (38.6) has risen concurrently, and Awich is quickly becoming one of the most, if not the most, pivotal player on the team.
“I roomed with Joel when I was a freshman,” Morgan said, “and there is quite the growth from that freshman year. Confidence, going to the basket, finishing plays, making jump shots.
“He’s just improved probably more than I’ve ever seen. He’s a huge player for us now, and him having that confidence opens the court. When we have a four-man that can go out or can drive past you, I think it’s absolutely huge for us.”