If there’s some silver lining to be taken from Cal Poly’s first run through the Big West Conference, perhaps it’s that no team in the league appears to be unbeatable on any given night.
Following Wednesday’s 78-72 overtime loss against first-place UC Irvine, the Mustangs completed their first eight conference games with a 2-6 record. Though the preseason expectations have not been met in terms of wins and losses, a closer look at Cal Poly’s schedule over the past month can be telling.
Of the six losses against Big West opponents, four have been decided by four points or less. There was the three-point loss to UC Santa Barbara in an emotionally charged Blue-Green Rivalry game. A two-point defeat at Cal State Northridge, one the Mustangs would certainly like to have back. And a pair of setbacks against UC Riverside and UC Irvine at home that saw Cal Poly squander early double-digit leads.
“I think we’ve proven that we can play with pretty much any team on the court,” senior guard Reese Morgan said. “It’s just we’ve got to start doing the little things down the stretch.”
The Mustangs (8-13, 2-6 Big West) have taken a couple lumps throughout the past three months, with lopsided nonconference losses at USC, Texas A&M and Saint Mary’s. But they also played close games with UNLV and UCLA and have been in every conference game to this point.
It’s hard to tell if this group is close to turning the corner with the second half of the conference schedule beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday against Hawaii. Based on Wednesday’s loss to the preseason conference favorite Anteaters, Cal Poly is getting close, but it still seems to lack the killer instinct head coach Joe Callero has spoken about at length this season.
An 11-point first half lead wasn’t enough to hold off UC Irvine and its 7-foot-6, 300-pound center Mamadou Ndiaye. The Anteaters (18-6, 7-1 Big West) went on a 12-2 run to start the second half and made a desperation 3-pointer at the end of regulation to force overtime.
They went on to outscore the Mustangs — who were playing without injured forward Joel Awich for the second straight game — 15-9 during the extra period.
“I thought the biggest thing in the game is Mamadou and the blocked shots and the distortion,” Callero said. “You think you’ve played against big buys. He’s big when he’s on the ground. That’s the difference. He doesn’t need to jump to go block those shots.”
Ndiaye scored 21 points, grabbed four rebounds and recorded eight blocked shots while altering several more. Junior guard Luke Nelson added 21 points and forward Mike Best chipped in 11 points and eight rebounds in the victory.
Cal Poly’s Taylor Sutlive and Ridge Shipley scored 11 points each to lead four Mustangs in double figures. Morgan and David Nwaba added 10 apiece, and Brian Bennett finished with eight points and six rebounds off the bench.
“How we respond to it really shows our character,” Shipley said. “We’ve had a couple of these kind of games and there’s a difference between coming back and getting blown out and coming back and losing by a couple points.”
The Mustangs’ resiliency will be tested again Saturday against the resurgent Rainbow Warriors (16-3), who sit second in the Big West standings at 5-1. When the two teams met in the conference opener Jan. 6, Hawaii made a strong push in the final minutes to pull away for an 86-73 victory.
Morgan also said there’s some comfort to be taken in remembering Cal Poly’s improbable run to the NCAA Tournament two years ago. The Mustangs got hot at the right time in 2014, and with an arguably more talented team this year, another late-season push seems possible.
“I think it helps knowing what we did two years ago as far as being able to put three wins together in the tournament,” Morgan said. “I think that, at least from what I remember, we’re a lot closer, we’re a lot more on the brink to winning these games.”
Wednesday’s Boxscore: UC Irvine 78, Cal Poly 72, OT