Heard of Christmas in July? How about St. Patrick’s Day in December?
The Cal Poly men’s basketball team was treating Saturday’s showdown with St. Mary’s as if it were an NCAA Tournament first-round game, bringing the Ides of March to Mott Gym a few months early.
A rowdy season-high 2,878 in attendance seemed to share a kindred grasp on the game’s importance. The Mustangs even took their three previous games as if they were making a run through the Big West Tournament.
With a costly turnover in the final seconds leading to a 59-54 loss against one of the NCAA’s best postseason teams the past few seasons, the Mustangs were one-and-done in the Big Dance of the mind.
But for a program that’s never advanced beyond the conference tournament final, Cal Poly needs the practice for the real thing.
“This is preparation for what’s to come,” senior forward David Hanson said. “We’re going to be in this situation so many more times this year. St. Mary’s is a very good team, and we’re going to be playing teams in our conference of a similar caliber.”
Hanson had a team-high 15 points and three steals to lead Cal Poly (5-3), which also got nine points from senior center Will Donahue and seven from senior point guard Amaurys Fermin, but Donahue missed Fermin on an inbound pass with four seconds left and the Mustangs trailing by three.
The Gaels (5-1) eagerly jumped on the loose ball, and Matthew Dellavedova sank two free throws to seal the game. Fermin’s desperation three-quarter-court 3-pointer almost banked in, but since this was the faux NCAA Tournament and not MTV Rock ‘n’ Jock, it wouldn’t have been much consolation had it gone in.
Cal Poly had 12 turnovers in the game, which St. Mary’s converted into 15 points. The Mustangs turned 12 Gaels turnovers into 10 points of their own, but Cal Poly’s turnovers were more about denying itself a shot opportunity rather than giving one to its high-caliber opponent.
“Our goal is to be a single-digit turnover team,” Mustangs head coach Joe Callero said. “We probably had three turnovers that were unforced that were really critical that we’ve got to be able to get shots. We’re never going to be able to improve that unless we’re playing that quality of an opponent.
“What it really does show is how precious those possessions are when you play against a team that has so much ammunition.”
Much like a 42-36 victory at USC last month when the Mustangs faced two 7-footers, the inside presence of St. Mary’s, which started 7-0 center Kyle Rowley, gave Cal Poly’s big men trouble.
Working mainly inside, Hanson was the only Mustangs player in double digits, and starting center Will Taylor and Donahue combined for just eight rebounds.
“All the games, they’ve had a lot of big guys,” Donahue said. “It’s been a challenge for us. Our guards have been very good, spreading the court and giving us one-on-one action and also helping us rebound because a lot of what we’re doing is keeping the bigs off the boards.”
For the most part, Taylor and Donahue were able to do that, but Gaels forward Rob Jones was a force in the paint, scoring 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the field and grabbing 12 rebounds.
Dellavedova scored 10, and Brad Waldow had 13 on 5-of-6 shooting for St. Mary’s.
Cal Poly jumped to a 5-0 lead in the opening minutes, and after pushing it to 19-13 with 6:47 left in the first half, the Mustangs weathered a 5-minute stretch where they scored just one field goal to lead 26-25 at the break.
Fermin, who started 0 for 7 from the field, hit a 3-pointer as time expired.
St. Mary’s got ahead by as many as eight in the second half before Cal Poly fought back to cut it to one.
The Gaels gave Donahue a layup on defensive indifference with 13 seconds left and took their chances at the free-throw line, but the Mustangs were unable to get up another shot by the end of the game.