It took just one minute for everything to change.
The Cal Poly men’s basketball team had fought UC Riverside to not much more than a stalemate Saturday night at Mott Athletics Center, where if ever a game looked like it would go down to the final shot, this was it.
Then a sudden 8-0 run that took all of 54 seconds spurred the Mustangs (10-8, 3-3 Big West Conference) to a runaway 68-49 victory over the Highlanders (9-11, 2-4 Big West).
Reese Morgan hit a 3-pointer, then turned a steal into a fast-break layup. Junior forward Joel Awich passed to a wide-open Ridge Shipley for another 3, and Cal Poly’s lead grew from three to eight with 6:55 left.
Soon after, the Mustangs pushed the advantage to 10, then to 12, and it only got larger from there.
Morgan, who scored a team-leading 14 points and went 9 of 10 from the free-throw line, had been 0 for 4 from the field before the 3-pointer, and the junior guard blew off some steam with a celebratory hand gesture after finally hitting.
“It was a big point in the game,” said Morgan, who had his first double-digit scoring game since catching fire late in an overtime victory at Hawaii on Jan 7.
“I was kind of struggling a little bit, and it’s always nice when you get an open shot,” he said. “There was nobody near me. I was able to line it up, and I felt confident in it. So, I was relieved to finally hit one. ... Hopefully, that will roll over to the ones where I’m not so open.”
Awich also had another big game after helping lead the Mustangs to Thursday’s 11-point win over visiting Cal State Fullerton.
On Saturday, Awich scored 11 points and grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds for his first career double-double and tied Maliik Love for the team lead with a pair of blocks.
Awich was 5 of 6 from the field, including 4 of 4 from inside the 3-point line. He helped carry the scoring load early as UC Riverside doubled down on center Brian Bennett in the post and held leading scorer David Nwaba to just seven points going into the final 1:06 of the game.
It was just the latest sign of an emergence for Awich as he has blossomed in his first season as a full-time starter.
“Joel’s personality by nature is just simply very consistently low key,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “You give him experiences, and he’s going to learn from them. He’s a steady, steady improver.
“He had to learn how to be a starter, and now he realizes that teammates are open to him being aggressive and taking that shot.”
The score was tied at 24 at the half, but in a sequence in the first two minutes of the second, Awich immediately followed a shot block with a 3-pointer that gave the Mustangs a 27-26 lead. They never trailed the rest of the game.
“It was kind of tough getting it going down low because they were doubling a bunch of the post action,” Awich said. “So, it was hard for me and Brian to get started down low. I think that was a big factor in the first half because we didn’t get going.
“Just hitting the first shot, once you hit the first one, you get the confidence to take another one, and also, it helps when I get the blocks. It helps me get energized as well.”
Taylor Johns was a force down low for the Highlanders, scoring a game-high 19 points to go with seven rebounds. He was 7 of 8 from the free-throw line. UC Riverside also got 11 points from Jaylen Bland, who started the game 3 of 4 from 3-point range but was 0 for 4 after that, and 10 points from Steven Thornton. Austin Quick had a game-high seven assists.
Shipley and Nwaba each scored 12, and Nwaba added seven rebounds.
Nwaba scored five points in the waning moments, causing some controversy.
He threw down an unchallenged fast-break dunk as UC Riverside continued to press in the final 47 seconds, and he sank a jumper near the top of the key with two seconds left to beat the shot-clock buzzer.
Callero said he made the calls to shoot in both situations and had words with a visibly perturbed Dennis Cutts, the Highlanders head coach, after the game ended. A Cal Poly player appeared to leave the bench and enter the court after the buzzer-beater.
“When we hit the last basket, one of our kids was excited for Dave and thought it was the end of the game,” Callero said. “It was just a little over-excitement taking a shot there. We didn’t want to have to pick up the turnover. ... We don’t ever want to show anybody up.”