LOS ANGELES — Welcome back.
The Cal Poly men’s basketball team returned to the low-scoring style that characterized its win-ugly mantra from last season.
Senior forward David Hanson returned to the land of the scoring, leading the Mustangs with a team-high 12 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with less than 1:30 left in Saturday’s game at the Galen Center.
And Joe Callero returned to USC, victorious.
The Cal Poly head coach — 12 years removed from his season as an assistant with the Trojans — won a defensive chess match with USC’s Kevin O’Neill, calling for Hanson’s late 3 and watching Jamal Johnson and Will Taylor ice a 42-36 victory with free throws down the stretch.
With shooting percentages cringe-worthy enough to be featured in a bizarre grindhouse horror film, Cal Poly (2-1) survived a 10-minute first-half scoring drought by holding the Trojans (1-3) to a new low for a Mustangs opponent in the Division I era.
Cal Poly twice held Pacific to 39 points last season, but the Mustangs’ 42 points was also a new Division I program record for fewest points in victory.
Callero swears the low-scoring strategy was not the plan coming in. This season, Cal Poly is supposed to feature a deeper roster with an upgraded ability to run and shoot.
But when the height of USC’s front line — which featured two 7-footers — completely neutralized the Mustangs’ inside game, things changed. “They helped it go into super, super low-scoring because they’re so stingy defensively,” said Callero, who spent the 1998-99 season on the sidelines at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena under former Trojans head coach Henry Bibby. “Kevin O’Neill is one of the best defensive coaches on the West Coast, if not the nation, and they are perennially the top one or two defensive teams in the Pac-10 or 12 whatever it might be. So, we couldn’t score.”
Cal Poly shot only 25.9 percent from the field and missed 26 of 31 3-point attempts.
But when the Mustangs really needed a score, Callero pulled a set play he’d been saving for a special occasion to free up Hanson at the top of the key for a 3.
The all-Big West senior nailed it with 1:26 left to put Cal Poly ahead 36-35. Johnson made four straight free throws, and Taylor sank two and grabbed two huge rebounds to stifle any USC comeback.
“The only way you get out of slumps, the only way anybody does in any sport,” Callero said, “you keep going to your guys, the guys that got you there over the years.”
Hanson, the team’s leading returning scorer with more than 15 points per game last season, had made only one field goal in each of Cal Poly’s first two games of the season.
He was 4 of 14 from the field Saturday and 2 of 9 from 3-point range, but he shot 50 percent from the floor overall in the second half, helping the Mustangs erase a seven-point deficit at the break.
Even if he’s not fully convinced he’s out of any slump, Hanson finally felt comfortable.
“I still personally missed a lot of shots,” Hanson said, “but my teammates did a good job of being able to find me, and thankfully, I was able to make one or two of them.”
Thanks to last season, when Cal Poly ranked among the lowest-scoring defenses and the lowest scoring offenses in Division I, the Mustangs mentally overcame any frustrations that might accompany a poor shooting effort.
Falling behind 20-11 after USC went on a 12-0 run over a 10-minute stretch in the first half, Cal Poly outrebounded USC 16-6 on the offensive glass and hung around with the Trojans just long enough to take it in the end.
“We’re definitely comfortable with it,” Hanson said of the way things played out. “In my last couple years here, we’ve done that a lot. That wasn’t necessarily the game plan. But that’s just how it went, and we’re fine. We’ve done that multiple times.”
Hanson said it was one of the Mustangs’ biggest victories in his career. It’s the second time Cal Poly, which holds a 2-1 lead in the series, has taken out USC. The Mustangs topped the Trojans 93-78 in 2003 before losing 78-55 to USC in 2007.
It’s the first victory over a high-major team for Cal Poly under Callero, who took over as head coach in 2009.
“We want to have a sense that when we play BCS-level teams that we’re going in to not play them well and get patted on the back We feel like we’re a mid-major team that needs to make some noise when it comes to recruiting and donations,” Callero said.