Knowing it would be the last game of the season regardless of the outcome, UC Santa Barbara played like a team with nothing to lose Saturday night.
The visiting Gauchos, already eliminated from next week’s Big West Conference Tournament, came to a packed Mott Athletics Center and embraced the role of spoiler on Cal Poly’s senior night.
Senior guard Eric Childress scored a game-high 15 points and last-place UC Santa Barbara stymied the surging Mustangs en route to a 57-44 victory in the Big West regular season finale for both teams.
Cal Poly (11-19, 6-10 Big West) never established a rhythm offensively against the Gauchos’ familiar zone defense and saw its three-game winning streak come to an end.
The Mustangs will be the No. 7 seed at the Big West Tournament next week and will face No. 2 UC Davis in the first round at noon on Thursday at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
“We talked about it during Friday’s practice — very dangerous team, very dangerous situation,” head coach Joe Callero said. “They’re playing for the ability to upset Cal Poly on their home court, last game of the year.”
UC Santa Barbara (6-22, 4-12 Big West) was eliminated from the postseason Friday when the NCAA lifted a postseason ban on Hawaii, which had previously been ruled ineligible for the Big West Tournament because of a violation of ethical conduct rules under former head coach Gib Arnold.
And with the defending conference champion Rainbow Warriors sitting fourth in the conference standings, the Gauchos were dropped from the eight-team tournament field in unexpected fashion. Any lingering frustration from the Hawaii decision seemed to translate into a relentless effort that resulted in a season sweep of the Blue-Green Rivalry.
“They came out and they punched us in our face,” said Cal Poly forward Luke Meikle, who scored eight points and grabbed four rebounds. “It’s hard to play make-up ball, especially when you’re not making shots.”
Cal Poly got off to a somewhat sluggish start following the typically emotional senior night pregame ceremony. The Gauchos were the more aggressive rebounding team early, scoring eight second-chance points on six offensive rebounds to take a 27-23 lead into the break.
It was more of the same in the second half, as the Mustangs missed 11 of their first 13 shots from the field and UC Santa Barbara’s lead swelled to 43-27 with less than 12 minutes remaining.
Consecutive baskets by Victor Joseph and Donovan Fields cut the deficit to eight points with 5:34 to go, but the Mustangs would get no closer the rest of the way.
“We’re capable of really doing anything, and I believe in this group of guys,” said senior point guard Ridge Shipley, who had eight points and three assists. “It sucks to lose, but I don’t doubt these guys for a second that they’re not ready to play on Thursday.”
Cal Poly shot 30.5 percent from the field (18 for 59) and made eight of its 32 attempts from behind the 3-point line. The Mustangs also committed 12 turnovers and did not attempt a single free throw, believed to be a first in Callero’s eight seasons coaching the Mustangs.
Fields was the only player to reach double-digit scoring, finishing with 10 points and three assists in a team-high 32 minutes. Senior forward Zach Gordon grabbed a team-high nine rebounds and blocked three shots in the final home game of his career.
“Credit them for sticking with it and really having a nice, tight zone,” Callero said. “I couldn’t find the right buttons for us to become aggressive.”
Cal Poly’s attention now turns to a veteran UC Davis team that finished the regular season 19-12 overall and placed second in the Big West at 11-5. The two teams split their season series, each winning on their home court in games that were decided by four points.
UC Davis had a chance to win the Big West regular season title Saturday night, but suffered a 30-point loss at UC Irvine.
“They got beat pretty badly by Irvine,” Callero said. “So, you have two teams that are kind of licking their wounds a little bit.”