ANAHEIM — This one had to go Cal Poly’s way.
After suffering a couple of buzzer-beating heartbreakers during the regular season, Mustangs men’s basketball players believed they had some karma coming their way in a first-round slugfest with UC Riverside at the Big West Conference Tournament at the Honda Center.
“I was just thinking it was our time just because we’ve had a couple game-winners get hit on us,” junior forward David Hanson said. “All of our guys were confident at the end and wanted the ball.”
But there was only more bad luck for the bank.
At the end of overtime, the results were no different from home heartbreakers to conference foe UC Santa Barbara and Bracket Buster visitor Northern Arizona — and like every other tournament matchup between the Mustangs and Highlanders.
Last-second shots didn’t go Cal Poly’s way, and Thursday’s 70-66 defeat ended the season in a way that felt too premature to the Mustangs.
“We had the momentum going into the overtime,” said Shawn Lewis, Cal Poly’s lone senior. “We were confident, and we knew guys could knock down shots. It was just getting a stop and scoring and getting another stop, we just couldn’t put those two together.”
Cal Poly got 18 points from Lewis, 16 by Hanson and a career-high 14 from former Morro Bay High standout Dylan Royer, but after junior center Will Donahue fouled out in the final five minutes of regulation, the No. 2 Mustangs (15-15) had no answer for UC Riverside’s Kareem Nitoto.
Though swept by Cal Poly in the regular season, the No. 7 Highlanders (12-19) moved to 3-0 in Big West Tournament play against second-seeded Cal Poly, which was looking to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance. UC Riverside dispatched the Mustangs in 2004 and 2008.
“We kind of wanted that team,” Nitoto said. “We felt like we could beat those guys. We were all real confident when we found out we were playing them, and we came out and proved it to ourselves that we can play with anybody.”
Scoring a game-high 23 points, Nitoto drove to the basket to draw a foul that led to the game-tying free throws that forced overtime with less than five seconds left in regulation. Then the Hawaii transfer scored on another drive for the go-ahead 3-point play in the last 15 seconds of overtime.
Without Donahue to stop the drive, Nitoto was able to go all the way to hoop, seemingly at will.
“Donnie’s been our anchor all year,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “He’s just a physical presence out there. He can take up a lot of space, but I think our small lineup just battled all the way. When we moved the ball, there was five guys who could shoot 3s out there.”
Royer was a major part of the small lineup. Averaging only four minutes and 1.7 points per game, UC Riverside head coach Jim Wooldridge admitted not knowing who the 6-foot-1 sophomore shooter was or even how to pronounce his last name.
But every single one of Royer’s shots was huge.
Royer was 4 for 5 from 3-point range in 13 minutes — all in a back-and-forth second half — and scored the layup that gave the Mustangs a 66-65 lead with 34 seconds left in overtime.
To know Royer was a long-range threat, all Wooldridge would have had to do was peek at the stat sheet.
All 17 of his regular-season field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, and he helped Cal Poly to a 75-70 win over Cal State Fullerton two weeks ago with four 3s in that game.
“I’ve said it numerous times in interviews that Dylan is the best shooter on our team by far,” Lewis said. “It’s just his confidence level. I think he gained his confidence this season, and next year, he’s going to be a big part of the offense. He improves his defense, and he’s going to be a tough guy to guard.”
Coming out of a timeout with 10 seconds left and the Mustangs trailing by two in overtime, Lewis took the ball at the top of the key and, after momentarily losing his footing, put up a shot that was partially blocked by the Highlanders’ Phil Martin.
It wasn’t the shot that was drawn up or the one that Lewis wanted to take, but with the clock running down, it was the shot Cal Poly had to settle for.
“We got the ball one-on-one into our best player’s hands on the best spot of the court at the best time possible, and the kid slipped,” Callero said. “And he didn’t have a shot, but he got back up on his feet and tried to make a play.
“That wasn’t a coaching decision or a player error. That was a fact of life that he slipped.”
Lewis had team highs with eight rebounds and five assists to go with his team-leading scoring total and ends his college career as one of the most prolific shot-makers in Mustangs history.
The Mustangs will return a lot next season, when they will try to improve their regular-season finish for the third straight season, but they also recognize Lewis’ contributions will not be easy to replace.
“Shawn does everything,” Hanson said. “He scores, rebounds, plays defense, blocks shots. Shawn’s a great player. He’s a first-team All-Big West player, and we lose a lot with him.”