Up 10 points and ready to end its four-game losing streak, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team returned from the half and gave it all back to visiting Long Beach State.
Then, Mustangs miscues in the final four minutes allowed the 49ers to cruise to a 78-72 win at Mott Gym on Thursday, and Cal Poly (8-15, 5-6 Big West Conference) dropped all the way to sixth place, still mourning a 5-2 conference start.
That hot streak seems like ancient history after five straight losses, but it hasn’t irreparably damaged the team’s morale, first-year head coach Joe Callero said.
“They’re appropriately disappointed, appropriately frustrated,” Callero said, “but you didn’t see any quit tonight. If you look at the team, you didn’t see head-hanging or quitting. You saw guys cramping up. You saw guys diving on loose balls. You saw guys going after offensive boards.
“To me, that’s the essence of what we’re trying to accomplish this year, is understand the fight that we need to have all game every game, make that part of our DNA.”
Shawn Lewis, one of three Mustangs to score in double figures, had 17 points and five rebounds but left the game late with a leg cramp he got fighting for a loose ball in the deciding moments. He said the injury was not serious.
Senior Lorenzo Keeler, still adjusting to his move to point guard, scored his 1,000th career point and dished out a career-high 10 assists. David Hanson scored a game-high 19, finding his range from the 3-point line.
Keeler had 17 points on 6-for-20 shooting from the field. He’s closing in on the top 15 in Cal Poly’s all-time scoring list and now has 1,012 points in his three seasons as a Mustang.
Keeler’s 10 assists are more than any other Cal Poly player has had in a game this year, and it’s the second time he’s registered a career high in assists since his move to point guard in the past three games.
“There’s no celebrating,” Keeler said. “We lost. I’m glad I got over 1,000, but we have to get back to winning. It’s frustrating. We know that we’re better than how we’ve been playing.
“When we won three in a row, everybody was just so happy and I think we got content. But teams keep coming and coming and coming.”
Cal Poly started a three-game winning streak Jan. 16 with a 90-79 win at Long Beach State (12-12, 6-5 Big West), but the Mustangs haven’t won since a one-point victory over Cal State Northridge on Jan. 23 that moved them to 5-2 in conference play.
Cal Poly was the surprise of the Big West early in the season and caught teams by surprise, but in the second half of conference play, the Mustangs, Callero said, are struggling to compensate for their opponents’ adjustments.
That was evident Thursday, when Long Beach dissected the Cal Poly zone defense for 47 second-half points. Eugene Phelps led five 49ers in double figures with 15 points, and Stephan Gilling sank four 3-pointers and finished with 14 points.
Cal Poly still held a 70-69 lead following a 3-pointer by Keeler, but the Mustangs missed their next three jumpers and committed two turnovers on their next five possessions and quickly fell behind by seven.
Still, the game felt like an improvement of sorts to some. For the first time since the start of the losing streak, Cal Poly built an early lead on its opponent instead of falling behind.
“This is the first game we really got on a team in the beginning,” Lewis said. “The last three-four games, we haven’t gotten out to a good start, but we couldn’t sustain it in the second half.”