Chris O’Brien saw red, then a flash of charging green. It was only the first of December, but to him, it felt like Christmas morning.
The Cal Poly sophomore guard hit the game-winning putback as time expired to turn away visiting Hawaii on Wednesday and put an emphatic punctuation on his official emergence in a Mustangs uniform.
Lifting an offensive rebound at the rim over teammate David Hanson, O’Brien gave Cal Poly (3-3) a 54-53 win over the previously unbeaten Rainbow Warriors (5-1) after Joston Thomas had given Hawaii a one-point advantage only 22 seconds earlier.
Both teams swarmed the floor after the final shot, each laying claim to the victory. O’Brien himself wasn’t sure the shot had left his hand in time after seeing a flash of red from the clock lighting up behind the backboard. But when his green-clad teammates rushed him from the sideline, he started to get the idea.
“I look back at the ref and see his hand coming down like it went in,” O’Brien said.
“I was getting squashed by probably over 1,000 pounds, but the feeling was great for me. I couldn’t even describe what was going through my head.”
The shot also signaled a complete turnaround in this young season for O’Brien, who finished with 11 points and five rebounds.
After sitting out last season as a Division I transfer from San Francisco, O’Brien had been shut out in his first two games for Cal Poly.
Mustangs coach Joe Callero implored him to become more of a scoring threat, and since then, he’s had three double-digit scoring games.
“I just plain old stunk,” O’Brien said, “but I wasn’t going to let that bother me. Each game, I’ve rallied, and I’ve continued to work harder. Just getting my confidence back is the main thing.”
The victory was a statistical anomaly for the Cal Poly. The Mustangs shot just 33.3 percent from the floor and were outrebounded 34-24 by a larger Hawaii front line.
Common sense with those kind of numbers would indicate a dominant Warriors win. But in a battle between two of the most turnover-troubled teams in the country — both rank in the bottom 50 of more than 300 Division I programs in turnovers per game — Cal Poly came out on top.
Averaging more than 18 turnovers a game coming in, the Mustangs totaled just 13 against the Hawaii. The Warriors’ turnover numbers, however, remained strikingly high.
“If you look at the most important stat consistently in the NCAA Tournament, field goal shooting percentage is the number one indicator if you’re going to win or lose the game,” Callero said. “But if you throw the one stat that can equalize it all, it’s 27 turnovers.”
Late in the second half, Hawaii had cleaned up its act. It was a back-and-forth game after the 9:30 mark, and the Warriors looked ready to take their first road win in the past 12 tries.
After Hanson’s layup gave Cal Poly a 52-48 lead, Shawn Lewis fouled Zane Johnson on a 3-point attempt. Johnson hit all three, and after a Mustangs turnover, Thompson backed down Will Donahue and spun to the baseline for the go-ahead score.
The Warriors got down by as many as 16-6 before Johnson was able to knock down a fadeaway 3-pointer following a Cal Poly turnover in the backcourt.
But unlike last season’s game, when the Mustangs were able to push their lead to 23 at its largest in an eventual 102-89 victory in Hawaii, Cal Poly was unable to push its advantage.
The height of 7-foot center Douglas Kurtz helped to limit the inside game of Cal Poly, whose tallest starter is only 6-foot-8.
Hawaii’s 2-3 zone did give the Mustangs open looks from the outside, but they shot just 2 of 15 from 3-point range in the first half.
“They wanted us to keep going from the outside,” said Donahue, who had eight points and six rebounds. “They left our shooters open, and we knew with the on-ball screens, their big guys weren’t quick enough to get out there.”