ANAHEIM — Cal Poly men’s basketball head coach Joe Callero moved leading scorer Lorenzo Keeler to point guard at midseason because he thought the senior would add a sense of urgency and leadership to a position that had been manned by a freshman starter.
Callero got the insistence he intended when the Mustangs needed it most, perhaps as Keeler was sensing his senior season coming to a close at the Anaheim Convention Center on Wednesday.
Helping avenge a last-second loss to UC Irvine on Saturday, Keeler scored 27 points in a 73-69 win over the Anteaters in the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament, his continued drives to the basket and quests to the free-throw line serving as Cal Poly’s only semblance of an offense during some dicey stretches.
The bulk of Keeler’s points came after the Anteaters (14-18) had opened up a 45-31 lead early in the second half and looked ready to turn the game into a blowout.
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Plagued by turnovers during the stretch where UC Irvine built its lead, the Mustangs (12-18) seemed powerless to carve into the deficit.
First there was a backcourt violation. Then, a travel was called against Shawn Lewis. David Hanson fumbled the ball underneath.
Keeler kept Cal Poly in the game by getting to the free-throw line, tying 30-year-old Big West Tournament records for free-throw attempts and makes. He finished it at the line, too.
The senior sank 16 of 18 free throws to go with his five field goals and hit two free throws with three seconds left to ensure that there would be no miracle comeback for the Anteaters.
UC Irvine erased an eight-point deficit by sinking four 3-pointers in the final 48 seconds in an overtime win at Mott Gym on Saturday.
And there was another by-product of Keeler’s move to the point position: Freshman guard Kyle Odister got to move to wing, and his three 3-pointers helped the comeback effort, too.
After going scoreless in the first half, Odister finished with nine points, and a 3-poiner by the freshman with 8:27 left in the game gave the Mustangs their first lead of the half. And, as Keeler was driving the lane, it opened up shots for other players as well.
David Hanson hit two 3-pointers from NBA range in the final nine minutes to finish with 15 points.
No other Cal Poly players scored in double figures.
Just like the last game, Cal Poly struggled after giving up another eight-point lead — only this one came in the first half as opposed to the final minute.
A dunk down the lane by Mustangs walk-on senior forward Ryan Darling pushed an early Cal Poly lead to 16-8 with 12:48 left to go before the half.
To that point, the Mustangs looked to have corralled Eric Wise, who scored on back-to-back UC Irvine possessions to open the game.
Wise got two easy shots against Cal Poly’s man-to-man defense, but a move to the 1-3-1 zone by Callero quieted him in the post and led to an 8-3 Cal Poly scoring run.
It wasn’t long, however, before the Anteaters would claw back into the game. Though not quite up to par with four 3-pointers in 48 seconds, UC Irvine closed the gap with an 8-0 run over the next 3:20.
Moore tied the score at 16 on a driving layup with 9:23 left, and Wise scored three more field goals before the half to lead all scorers with 10 points.
UC Irvine pushed its advantage to 35-29 at halftime, and a 10-2 run by the Anteaters to start the second half gave them their first double-digit lead of the game.