Will Donahue had to reverse his role on the fly.
The Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s junior center suddenly started getting touches down low when UC Riverside forced the Mustangs to change their game plan offensively in the second half of a doubleheader with the women’s team Saturday night at Mott Gym.
As the defense clamped down on Shawn Lewis and David Hanson, Donahue showed why Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero hasn’t cut his “big three” to two.
Donahue scored eight of Cal Poly’s first 10 points and finished 6 of 9 from the floor with 16 points to help lead the Mustangs (13-11, 8-4 Big West Conference) to a 56-40 win over the Highlanders that moved them all alone into second place in the conference standings heading into a showdown with third-place Cal State Northridge on Wednesday.
Lewis scored a team-high 17 points, and Hanson added 11 as Cal Poly extended its winning streak to a season-high five games and moved two games above .500 for the first time this season.
Donahue started the season as one of three players that Callero counted on for points, and the coach has never wavered, even if his center has played a supporting role offensively.
As Lewis and Hanson have teamed to lead the Mustangs in scoring in all but two games, Donahue has made himself the Mustangs’ leading rebounder, averaging 9.1 per game.
“He’s been huge,” Lewis said. “Me and him always talk after the game about how he steals rebounds. I’ll be right there, and he’ll just steal it from me.”
Donahue was coming off a career game where he snatched 17 rebounds. He scored 13 in an 80-71 win over UC Irvine on Thursday but made just two field goals.
In Cal Poly’s previous win against UC Riverside, Donahue had 14 rebounds and only four points.
With the Highlanders’ collapsing defense, he was prepared to have another low-scoring game and do what he could to clean up the glass.
“That’s fine with me,” said Donahue, who still grabbed a game-high six rebounds. “Defensive boards really kills people. It just breaks your back. So I’m fine with just rebounding right now.
“I thought there wasn’t going to be anything, and our mindset was a lot of outside shots and weak-side rebounds.”
The outside shots were there, but the Mustangs opened the game 0 for 6 from 3-point range. When Cal Poly tried to go to Lewis down low, UC Riverside adjusted and Donahue picked up the slack.
“As we were posting up Shawn, there’s so much help on his side,” Callero said. “As we reversed the ball out, Donahue was able to get what we call sweet-spot catches. He just got the ball in a much better position. He was the real benefactor of the attention Shawn receives on the low block.
“That really helped us control the tempo and keep things under control where they weren’t going to fast break on us.”
Tempo for the most part was slow.
The crowd of 2,519 remained largely subdued before Lewis iced the game with an alley-oop dunk on a lob from Donahue at the top of the key with 3:17 left and Cal Poly leading 56-34.
The Mustangs led 12-10 with less than eight minutes left in the first half. A nearly three-minute scoreless streak for both teams was broken up by two free throws by UC Riverside’s Kareem Nitoto.
Cal Poly led 25-21 at the half, and another big scoreless streak killed the Highlanders in the second half.
The Mustangs went on an 8-0 run that spanned nearly five minutes to take a 48-32 lead with just 5:31 left in the game.
With 16 points, Jovan Borum was the only UC Riverside player in double figures. The Highlanders shot 36.6 percent from the floor and 23.1 percent on 3-pointers against Cal Poly, which ranks first in the nation in 3-point percentage defense (26.8).