A winless start to the season might not have inspired much optimism for Thursday’s home opener, but the Cal Poly men’s basketball team is undefeated in at least one category now.
Debuting a new style of play for the Mustangs (1-5) and some new players — against his old team — Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero is 1-0 at home after the Mustangs rallied in the second half to beat visiting Seattle (4-4) and NBA prospect Charles Garcia 85-74 in front of 1,442 at Mott Gym.
The win came along with an improbable first-half comeback and a surge to a surprising double-digit second-half lead. The Mustangs even extended their season-long streak of improved field-goal shooting.
“Every game we’ve gotten better and better and better,” sophomore forward Jordan Lewis said, “and we told ourselves, let’s keep on improving like we have been. Let’s get this win.”
After cutting a 14-point deficit to five before the end of the half, Cal Poly took the lead for good on a layup by junior college transfer Will Donahue midway through the second half and took a 10-point lead on a layup by sophomore David Hanson four minutes later.
The Mustangs shot 56 percent in the second half, 49 percent for the game, and spread the shots around.
Lewis led the team with 15 points, but six Cal Poly players scored in double figures, and even though Garcia scored 26 and grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds, the Mustangs smothered him in the decisive second half.
“If he got the ball, our plan was to swarm him,” said Mustangs forward Jordan Lewis, one of the players tasked with guarding Garcia when Cal Poly went to its man defense. “We got some good steals off of that. We didn’t want him to have anything easy on the inside.”
In their Cal Poly home debuts, Donahue had 13 points and team-high 11 rebounds, and freshman point guard Kyle Odister added nine points, three assists and three pivotal 3-pointers before fouling out late.
Shawn Lewis scored 13 points, grabbed seven rebounds, dished out a team-high four assists and had four blocks.
Callero downplayed the matchup against the transitioning Division I school he left in the offseason. He said he was happy to get the win against the Redhawks, but that it hardly compared.
“The first step of any building process is becoming a home-court team,” Callero said. “You feel like you come home, you get juiced up, jump a little higher, shoot a little better, be a little more enthusiastic and that’s what the case was this time.”
It didn’t appear that way early on.
Boosted by Garcia, who scored 11 of the team’s first 22 points, Seattle took a 10-point lead less than 10 minutes into the game.
Cal Poly, which had improved its shooting percentage in each successive game this season, managed to shoot just 33.3 percent in the first 12 minutes, and Seattle extended the lead to 27-13.
Shortly after that, Garcia picked up his second foul when Jordan Lewis attacked him with a drive in the paint, and that’s when the game began to turn.
“When Garcia was defending, we were afraid to throw to the post and we were afraid to dive the middle,” Callero said. “The mentality’s got to be attack the big, make him defend and make him commit and not be afraid to get that shot blocked.”
The foul trouble — though it didn’t stop Garcia from picking up a double-double in the first half — limited his minutes.
Coming into the night sitting an average of only eight minutes a game, Garcia missed seven in the first half alone.
He did end the half with a game-high 14 points and 10 rebounds, but by then Cal Poly had clawed back into the game.
The Mustangs’ shooting percentage improved as the offense got going behind sophomore point guard Justin Brown, who came off the bench to replace Odister.
Brown scored eight points in the first half, which Cal Poly ended on a 10-3 run to close to within 37-32, and finished with 10.
Going into the half with momentum, the chance to give Callero his first Cal Poly win, and an emotional one over his former team, became as much a reality as ever — even though he wasn’t stressing the emotional aspect.
“He’s been doing so much for the program and so much for us,” Jordan Lewis said. “Of course we wanted to get this win for him.”