Cal Poly men’s basketball coach Joe Callero used a familiar analogy with his team during the final month of an up-and-down season, telling the Mustangs to squeeze every ounce of juice out of their proverbial orange.
There was no denying that Callero, his coaching staff and the players achieved as much during a highly physical matchup with UCDavis during the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament on Thursday afternoon inside the Honda Center.
Short-handed Cal Poly scrapped and clawed until the final whistle against a more experienced and arguably more talented Aggies group. But it wasn’t enough on the conference’s biggest stage, as second-seeded UC Davis won 66-55 to secure a spot in the Big West semifinals Friday night.
“It was just little pulp and strands left in a lot of those bodies right now,” said Callero, who completed his eighth season leading the Mustangs with an 11-20 overall record.
Senior guard Ridge Shipley did everything he could to keep Cal Poly alive on the final day of its season. He scored 16 of his game-high 19 points in the second half on 5-for-9 shooting from beyond the 3-point line, and was the only Mustang to reach double-digit scoring.
Fellow senior Zach Gordon added nine points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots against a UC Davis front court that is as physically gifted as any team in the Big West. But even with Gordon’s relentless effort on the glass, the Aggies held a decisive 47-31 rebounding advantage and scored 15 second-chance points.
“I pride myself on rebounding, so I think it comes down to positioning,” Gordon said of the large discrepancy.
Cal Poly, which will lose Shipley, Gordon and Kyle Toth to graduation before next season, regrouped after a sluggish first half with a 13-2 run to start the second.
Shipley proved to be the offensive catalyst once again, making three consecutive 3-pointers to pull the Mustangs within 42-39 and swing the momentum largely in their favor.
But a veteran UC Davis team that starts four seniors and one junior made sure the Mustangs’ run wouldn’t last.
Seniors Darius Graham, the two-time Big West Hustle Player of the Year, and Brynton Lemar made back-to-back 3-pointers in 36 seconds, and the Aggies held on down the stretch to secure the victory.
“We just didn’t have the energy then,” Callero said of UC Davis’ response. “The team was really living off bubble gum, bailing wire and dental floss at that point.”
Aggies forward Chima Moneke — a first-team all-conference selection and the Big West Newcomer of the Year — gave the Mustangs all they could handle for the third time this season.
The 6-foot-6, 223-pound Moneke, who led the Big West in seven statistical categories during the regular season, recorded his conference-leading 12th double-double of the year and finished the game with 11 points and a career-high 18 rebounds.
The 18 rebounds were the second-highest single-game total in Big West Tournament history. The Aggies’ 47 rebounds were a season high.
“He knew we needed a monster effort on the boards, and we challenged him,” UC Davis coach Jim Les said. “Generally, when we challenge him he rises to the occasion. Really proud of all the guys, but in particular him.”
Both teams struggled to find consistent offense throughout the first half.
Cal Poly went several long stretches without scoring and went into the break shooting 30.8 percent from the field. Junior guard Victor Joseph’s three-point play with 1 second remaining pulled the Mustangs to within 26-21 at halftime.
Callero said Aggies guard Lawrence White was the difference maker, particularly in the first half, as White contributed 13 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steal in 36 minutes.
Lemar finished with 18 points on 9-for-10 shooting at the free-throw line to lead UC Davis.
“That’s a really well-coached team,” Shipley said, “and the seniors really stepped up.”
Big West Conference Tournament
UC Davis 66, Cal Poly 55
Key stat: UC Davis held a 47-31 rebounding advantage, including 15 on the offensive end.
Noteworthy: Senior guard Ridge Shipley scored 16 of his game-high 19 points in the second half.
Up next: Cal Poly ends the season 11-20 overall.