Jakub Niziol’s 11-point performance for the Cal Poly men’s basketball team Wednesday night may not have qualified as a full-blown breakout game, but it was undoubtedly a welcome sight in a season that’s offered few points of optimism.
With the Mustangs facing first-place UC Irvine and the palpable weight of an eight-game losing streak on their shoulders, Niziol came off the bench to set career highs in points (11), minutes (22), field goals attempt (six), free throws made (five) and free throws attempted (six).
The 6-foot-7, 210-pound Niziol, a Poland native known by teammates and coaches as “Kuba,” was the only Cal Poly player to score in double figures during a 70-48 setback against the Anteaters.
It was a somewhat expected outcome for UC Irvine, which at 12-9 overall and 5-0 in the Big West Conference is emerging as the team to beat under seventh-year head coach Russell Turner.
“I feel like I’m getting more comfortable, coach got more confidence in me, so I’m just trying to take the chance,” said Niziol, who burned his redshirt seven games into the season as the Mustangs’ roster began depleting.
Adapting to the physicality of American-style basketball has been the biggest adjustment for Niziol, who played for his native Poland’s U-20 national team during the 2016 FIBA Europe U-20 Championship Division B tournament this past summer.
The sophomore forward got a taste of the American game during his freshman year at Howard College in Texas — where he averaged 9.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game — but life in the Big West has been less forgiving.
“He’s trying to balance between, should I take more 3s, or can I score off the bounce, or can I get to the free-throw line,” head coach Joe Callero said. “He’s going to be a very good player for us.”
Yet, it was another European-born player who stole the show Wednesday night.
UC Irvine’s 7-2, 255-pound center Ioannis Dimakopoulos, a native of Patra, Greece, recorded his third double-double of the season with 19 points and 10 rebounds. He and 6-8 freshman forward Tommy Rutherford went a combined 12-for-23 from the field, converting nearly as many field goals as the entire Cal Poly team combined (14).
“We have to find out the first time we play them, can we guard them man for man on the block when (Dimakopoulos) has it?” Callero said. “… The answer (Wednesday) was no. He was the difference maker.”
UC Irvine’s length and ability to disrupt shots resulted in the Mustangs’ worst statistical shooting performance of the season by a wide margin. For the first time in 18 games, Cal Poly was held to less than 30-percent shooting from the field, finishing the contest with a 24.1 percent mark (14-for-58).
Callero said he was pleased with the Mustangs transition defense (the Anteaters made only one fast break basket) and their improved play against perimeter-oriented players Jaron Martin and Luke Nelson (they scored 11 combined points on 3-for-11 shooting).
Another positive was the performance of 6-8 junior forward Aleks Abrams, who scored seven points and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds. Abrams now leads Cal Poly with 64 rebounds this season, including 36 on the offensive end. Only UC Santa Barbara’s Jalen Canty (3.1) averages more offensive rebounds per game than Abrams (2.8) in the Big West this season.
“We just need to firm up inside before the next time we play them,” Abrams said.
The Mustangs will be back home at 7 p.m. Saturday against Long Beach State. Cal Poly has beaten the 49ers during its last two matchups in San Luis Obispo — including last year’s 96-92 double-overtime victory — but the series has been largely one-sided historically.
Long Beach State, which has won 11 of the last 15 meetings with the Mustangs, prefers to play an up-tempo style with less of an emphasis on defense. Another cold shooting night could be difficult to overcome.
“When you get behind, you get tight, you’re on a losing streak, team’s tighter,” Callero said. “No doubt the team gets tighter.”