The Cal Poly men’s basketball team watched as Long Beach State dismantled Big West Conference favorite and defending champion UC Santa Barbara on national television Tuesday, and knew it was in for a rough ride.
The 49ers, picked to finish second in the conference, throttled the Gauchos by 16 points in Santa Barbara to stake an early claim as the team to beat in the Big West.
For about 18 minutes Thursday night at Mott Gym, the Mustangs looked every bit up to the challenge of such a team before faltering late in the first half and being unable to recover in a 69-53 loss.
“We played 18 minutes of good basketball and in the last two minutes (of the half) they kicked us in the mouth,” forward David Hanson said.
Cal Poly (4-8, 0-1) looked to be building momentum for the second half when Shawn Lewis threw down a monster one-handed slam dunk on an alley-oop from Hanson to cut the early deficit to 20-18.
Then, suddenly, the wheels fell off.
“Instead of using the momentum to our advantage, we just went the other way with it,” Hanson said. “From that point on they just took it away from there. They wanted it more.”
After a Greg Plater 3-pointer, Shawn Lewis inbounded the ball which had rolled into the crowd. Jamal Johnson then threw the ball back out of bounds to a waiting Hanson, thinking that Lewis wasn’t officially inbounding the ball. The referee awarded the ball to Long Beach State, which then drew a foul and converted two more free throws with two seconds left to suddenly lead 29-18.
But the run continued in the second half, eventually culminating in a 44-20 49ers lead.
“That’s the best team I’ve seen in the Big West in the year and a half I’ve been here,” Mustangs head coach Joe Callero said. “They’re a hungry team.
“They came into Santa Barbara, buzz sawed Santa Barbara, the conference favorite, and they came in here and buzz sawed us tonight as well.”
Hanson scored a team-high 21 points for Cal Poly, and freshman point guard Jamal Johnson added 12 points in just 16 minutes.Despite a pedestrian record, Long Beach State (7-8, 2-0) looks to have established itself as the clear favorite through the first week of the conference slate.
Guard Larry Anderson missed six games during the non-conference schedule for the 49ers. He scored a career-high 25 in his return against UC Santa Barbara, and was a big part of the team’s attack against Cal Poly.
The 49ers are battle-tested having played at North Carolina, Arizona State and Washington in their non-conference schedule.
Cal Poly has run a gauntlet in its own right, playing arguably the toughest three-game stretch in program history, losing at UCLA, No. 7 San Diego State and Cal.
“It’s similar to us,” Callero said. “That competition keeps building you up, building you up. If you can schedule that difficult and then throw it out the door and say it’s a new season, a new focus.”
The Mustangs have had a rash of injuries and illnesses through the season, and another serious one may have taken place against the 49ers.
With two minutes to play, guard Chris O’Brien went after a loose ball and hurt his ankle.
“Unfortunately I feel right now, that (O’Brien) is going to miss some time,” Callero said. “He said he did hear a couple cracks in it. It was much more than a tweaked ankle.”
Callero said he hadn’t yet decided who might take O’Brien’s place in the starting lineup, but that he is considering moving Jordan Lewis in, or starting a combination of true freshmen in Maliik Love at the off-guard and Johnson at point.
The Mustangs did get one player back, as Ben Eisenhardt made his first appearance after recovering from an infection. Eisenhard did not attempt a field goal in three minutes.