ANAHEIM — The lemonade season is over, and it was a bittersweet blend for the Cal Poly men’s basketball team.
Despite a final 12-19 record, Mustangs head coach Joe Callero and the players felt good about a first year together where life gave them plenty of yellow fruit.
The last acerbic taste came with a 79-69 loss to Long Beach State (16-15) in the quarterfinals of the Big West Conference Tournament on Thursday, a defeat where the Mustangs were within two points midway through the second half but faded with a five-minute scoreless streak.
But the simple accomplishments — things like bucking preseason predictions, winning a tournament game for the first time in three years and climbing to second place nearly midway through the regular conference season — left the Mustangs with a fair share of sugary reflections, too, as they left the Anaheim Convention Center.
Cal Poly had two of its top recruits off the floor for most of the season because of academics.
With no one active taller than 6-foot-7 and the starting lineup capped at 6-6 most nights after center Will Donahue (6-8) became ineligible, the Mustangs were always dwarfed.
At times, such as Thursday, the Mustangs started games with two walk-ons playing at the same time.
“The tables turned against us the whole year,” said senior Charles Anderson, who scored nine points in his final game playing alongside fellow seniors Lorenzo Keeler and Ryan Darling.
“We lost Donahue. People didn’t think we were going to do well, and we showed them we could play. It’s the last game for Lorenzo, myself and Darling, but we think we put the program in the right direction.”
A night after Keeler spurred a rousing comeback with his ability to drive and draw fouls in a first-round win over UC Irvine, the offense was much tougher to come by against the 49ers.
Long Beach State point guard Casper Ware was only 3 for 14 from the floor himself, but he harassed Keeler into a 4-for-18 shooting effort, and Keeler shot just two free throws a night after he tied the conference tournament record with 18.
“Casper Ware is just a little pest,” said Keeler, who scored 11 points and had four assists. “Every time I got rid of the ball he would jump right there. And everywhere I went he was on me.”
Said Callero: “We were able to get shots, but they were hurried shots. They make you play faster than you’re comfortable and you can’t simulate that in practice.
“The Ware kid is as quick as anybody in college basketball. He can be on one side of you. Turn around, and he’s on the other side of you.”
Cal Poly countered by outrebounding the 49ers 43-34, but two extended scoring droughts sank the Mustangs.
Owner of a first-round bye, Long Beach State showed how much that extra night off meant when the 49ers cruised to a 14-2 run to start the game.
It was a lead that took Cal Poly almost 25 minutes to chip into, and when the Mustangs did finally get close — a 3-pointer by Anderson made the score 57-55 with 10:12 left in the game — the Mustangs ran out of gas.
Cal Poly didn’t score again until Anderson’s third 3-pointer cut the Long Beach State lead to 68-58 with 3:30 left.
By then, it was too late for a comeback.
“It was kind of frustrating we couldn’t put some more points on the board because we used so much energy and finally got some defensive stops that we needed and started scoring,” Anderson said.
“We thought we were maybe going to keep the momentum and take the lead, but we were stuck on 55 for a while.”
Jordan Lewis scored a team-high 14 points and grabbed four rebounds, and Will Taylor had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds for the Mustangs. Darling was 0 for 1 from the field but had nine rebounds, and Shawn Lewis came off the bench to score 13.
The Mustangs shot just 6 for 27 from the 3-point line and just 36.2 percent overall.
The 49ers advanced to face Pacific in the semifinals today at 8:30 p.m.
For a Cal Poly team that finished last in the Big West, was left out of this tournament a season ago and was picked to do no better this year, the loss hurt but the overall theme of the season was positive.
“It was very interesting and rewarding to watch all those guys buy into it,” Callero said. “And it evolved into a team that, you know, here you are in the quarterfinals. And I’m proud in that sense because it was just fun to coach them.
“They raised the bar higher quicker, which is great. What the seniors were able to do this year was basically show Cal Poly should be in the tournament, Cal Poly could be a good seed, Cal Poly could get a win in the tournament.”