Cal Poly forward Luke Meikle stood at the free throw line Thursday night with .2 seconds left on the clock. All he had to do was hit three free throws to complete an improbable comeback against Big West Conference rival UC Santa Barbara.
Believe it or not, Meikle had felt pressure like that before.
As a junior at Bellarmine Prep, Meikle hit two free throws in a hostile gym with no time left to give his team the win — completing a rare free-throw walk-off.
He did it again against UCSB.
Meikle, who was fouled on a half-court shot with less than a second left to play, sank all three free throws to lift Cal Poly to an 80-79 win over UCSB in the teams’ first game of Big West Conference play.
“I was just telling myself this is what I do,” Meikle said of his thoughts before the final free throws. “I practice, I play basketball every day for the last however many years. I was just trying to think of all the reps, block everything else out, didn’t talk to anybody. Just shot it.”
The fact that Meikle was fouled with less than a second left was improbable. The fact he made all three shots was impressive. But the fact that Cal Poly even had a chance to win the game was nothing short of incredible.
UCSB came out of the gates on fire to open the Blue-Green rivalry game, hitting its first eight field goals and surging to a 23-2 lead before the 2,600-plus Cal Poly fans had settled into their seats. It was 27-8 with 10:52 until halftime, and it looked like UCSB would roll to its 12th win 15 games and Poly would suffer another blowout loss.
But that all changed when senior point guard Donovan Fields took over. Fields was able to penetrate the stingy UCSB defense and either score or make plays for his teammates. He scored 12 in the first half and led Cal Poly on a 20-5 run over the last seven minutes. The Mustangs trailed by just four points, 40-36, at halftime.
“Once we went down, I felt like I had to be a little bit more aggressive to score, and that would help create other shots for guys,” Fields said.
The second half was a slug fest. The lead changed hands 13 times. The score was tied again at 77-77 when Fields scored on a reverse layup with 15 seconds left, leaving the door open for UCSB sophomore Max Heidegger. He took his time and hit a long 2-point shot over the long arms of Meikle for what appeared to be the game-winner.
But Meikle and Fields would team up for the final play, which was reinserted into the play book during Wednesday’s practice.
Fields, a high school quarterback at Newburgh Free Academy in New York, was the in-bounds passer. He ran the baseline to find open space and fired a pass to Meikle, who caught it at mid court. UCSB forward Jalen Canty, who had six blocks in the game, jumped to defend the shot, but Meikle hesitated long enough to draw the foul and go to the line.
“One second is a long time in basketball. So I just got it, turned, saw he was right there out of the corner of my eye, pump faked and he jumped,” said Meikle, a transfer from Gonzaga.
His three clutch free throws gave him 13 points for the game.
Fields finished the game with 22 points and six assists.
“It was definitely one of the craziest games,” Fields said. “That’s like a once-in-a-lifetime type of deal. I’m just glad we were on the winning side.”
The win snaps a seven-game losing streak against UCSB (11-4 overall, 0-1 Big West) that dates back to 2014 and was the first home win against UCSB since 2013 for Cal Poly.
Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero called it simply a “classic college basketball game.”
Cal Poly (6-9, 1-0) continues its conference schedule on Saturday when it hosts Cal State Fullerton, but Callero wants to make sure the carries that feeling of jubilation from Thursday’s win with it for the rest of the season.
“I don’t want our guys to come off this high,” Callero said.