SAN DIEGO — Cal Poly’s men’s basketball team nearly shocked the nation Monday night.
The Mustangs gave No. 11 San Diego State, the highest-ranked opponent a Cal Poly team had ever faced, everything it wanted and more as the Aztecs were without leading scorer Kawhi Leonard and fellow starter Chase Tapley because of illness.
Both teams’ shooting was pretty ill, too.
Malcolm Thomas had 18 points and 15 rebounds and the Aztecs struggled to beat Cal Poly 51-45 to improve to 11-0 for the first time in school history.
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San Diego State shot only 34.8 percent (16 of 46) and missed all 18 3-point attempts.
“Our goal was to pull a national upset,” Cal Poly coach Joe Callero said. “We wanted to try and muck it up and make it as ugly as possible. We specialize in that.”
Cal Poly made 8 of 22 on 3-pointers and only 14 of 48, 29.2 percent overall.
“They are so long and athletic and aggressive that when you try to penetrate the paint, they just get up there and beat the ball up,” Callero said.
“It was a bit like running in mud at the offensive end,” added San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “The harder we tried, the more we missed — 0 for 18 from 3-point range, that’s not us. But we played hard. Obviously we could not throw it in the ocean. And I think that sometimes starts to happen when one guy misses one that’s wide open, then he starts to question himself. It shouldn’t happen but it did for us tonight.”
Fisher said Leonard and Tapley were both feeling ill Saturday night, when San Diego State beat San Diego 77-49. Fisher said they both took IVs before this game.
Tapley, who averages 7.8 points, was sent home. Leonard, San Diego State’s leading scorer with a 16.3-point average, was on the bench and told Fisher he could play if needed. Fisher said he was tempted to put him in with about 10 minutes to go but didn’t.
“It was really different without Kawhi and Chase on the court, but we have to play through stuff like that,” Thomas said. “We have to defend every game, no matter who’s on the court.”
The Mustangs were without guard Drake U’u for the first time this year after the sophomore transfer from Hartford broke his hand in Cal Poly’s 72-61 loss to UCLA and will be out four to six weeks.
“We knew this was going to be like running the gauntlet,” Callero said. “Overcoming all our injuries and with Drake U’u out with the broken hand is tough. But we make no excuses. We just tried to find the right opportunities.”
The Aztecs had to rely on Thomas’ inside game, including a thunderous dunk with 3:03 left for a 41-36 lead. That came after Cal Poly’s Shawn Lewis and David Hanson hit 3-pointers to keep the Mustangs (3-6) close.
Lewis had 14 points and Hanson added 12.
Cal Poly’s Jamal Johnson was fouled by Billy White with 38.8 seconds left and he made one of two free throws to pull the Mustangs within 43-40.
D.J. Gay then made eight straight free throws in the final 38.3 seconds for the Aztecs. Gay was 1 for 11 from the field, including missing seven 3-point attempts.
The Aztecs had seemingly taken control with more than eight minutes left when James Rahon made a three-point play for a 34-24 lead.
“I thought we did a great job on closing out on their shooters, as well as digging in on their good post men,” Hanson said.
Cal Poly was coming off the loss to UCLA and will next travel to face Cal.
“By no means was this a moral victory,” Hanson said. “We were right there but we know we can play with anyone, we know we can play with the 11th team in the country, regardless of whether guys were out or whatever.”