Cal Poly

Cal Poly men’s basketball optimistic heading into Big West Tournament opener

Cal Poly guard Ridge Shipley defends UC Irvine guard Luke Nelson during last year’s Big West Tournament in Anaheim. The Mustangs are scheduled to play UC Davis at noon Thursday in the first round.
Cal Poly guard Ridge Shipley defends UC Irvine guard Luke Nelson during last year’s Big West Tournament in Anaheim. The Mustangs are scheduled to play UC Davis at noon Thursday in the first round. Associated Press

When Ridge Shipley looks back on his time playing for the Cal Poly men’s basketball team, there’s little doubt the 2014 Big West Conference Tournament will be at the forefront of his memories.

The senior point guard was a reserve freshman when the Mustangs went on a stunning run to the conference tournament championship as the No. 7 seed and captured the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth.

It was Shipley’s 14-point outburst that night, including the go-ahead 3-pointer from the top of the key with 14 seconds remaining, which propelled Cal Poly to a 61-59 upset of CSUN inside Honda Center.

Now four years later, Shipley is leading the seventh-seeded Mustangs into a win-or-go-home matchup with UC Davis at noon Thursday in the first round of this year’s Big West Tournament at the same venue.

“I know any team in the conference we can beat, and we proved that we can be a top team in this conference,” said Shipley, a second-team all-conference performer this season. “It’s time to grit down and get together as a team and make some moves during the tournament.”

Cal Poly brings an 11-19 overall record into its third pairing with the Aggies this year. And with Shipley setting the tone, the Mustangs have played some of their best basketball late in the season and won four of their final six games.

Savvy guard play from Shipley (10.6 points, 3.5 assists per game), junior Victor Joseph (12.2 points per game) and sophomore Donovan Fields (11.5 points per game) helped Cal Poly rebound from a 10-game losing streak that spanned most of December and January.

“For us, it’s all about energy and aggressiveness,” eighth-year head coach Joe Callero said. “We believe we can beat anybody in the conference.”

UC Davis (19-12) finished second in the Big West standings and had a chance to win the outright conference title on the final day of the regular season. Instead, the Aggies took a 30-point loss at top-seeded UC Irvine and enter the Big West Tournament eager to recover from that setback.

First-team all-conference junior Chima Moneke — a 6-foot-6, 223-pound forward from Australia — was a force all season, earning Big West Newcomer of the Year accolades. He averaged 14.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest and gave Cal Poly all it could handle in the first two meetings that were each decided by four points.

Moneke scored 25 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a 74-70 loss to the Mustangs inside Mott Athletics Center on Feb. 2. He had 18 points and four rebounds in the Aggies’ win at home in the conference opener for both teams back in January.

“This is going to be a tough, possession by possession basketball game,” UC Davis coach Jim Les said “We’re going to have to play really well to win.”

Cal Poly senior forward Zach Gordon, along with junior Luke Meikle, sophomore Aleks Abrams and redshirt freshman Hank Hollingsworth, will be charged with the task of disrupting Moneke offensively and limited the Aggies’ second-chance opportunities.

“I know we’ve been through some lows but we know what we’re capable of,” Meikle said. “We’ve shown spurts of it, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in our team, in our game plan. So I’m looking forward to Thursday. I think we have a great chance.”

The winner between Cal Poly and UC Davis will face the winner of No. 3 Cal State Fullerton and No. 6 CSUN at 6:30 p.m. Friday on ESPN3.

Big West Tournament at a glance

No. 2 UC Davis (19-12, 11-5 Big West)

Head coach: Jim Les, sixth season

Player to watch: Chima Moneke 14.5 points, 9.1 rebounds per game

No. 7 Cal Poly (11-19, 6-10 Big West)

Head coach: Joe Callero, eighth season

Player to watch: Ridge Shipley, 10.6 points, 3.5 assists per game