Even more than a victory, the winless Cal Poly men’s basketball team might have needed an offensive confidence boost going into Saturday’s nonconference home game against Bethesda.
The Mustangs (1-3) got it in a 78-39 victory over the second-year non-NCAA program, but can they carry it over into a three-game swing at the Global Sports Hardwood Challenge against North Dakota, Pacific and host Oregon in Eugene, Ore., next week?
The question remains.
Extended scoring droughts had marred previous losses to Nevada and Fresno State.
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Mustangs head coach Joe Callero had been rifling through player combinations to find a mix that worked.
“It’s not about the chemistry,” senior point guard Jamal Johnson said. “It’s about how we play collectively. We have good chemistry. We’ve seen it in practice. We all know it. It’s just the carryover we have from practice to the game where we lose most of it. We know we have some lulls that we have in practice, and they carry over to the game. I think with minimizing those in practice, it will carry over to the game.”
It was unclear how Cal Poly would respond to the issue early on.
The Mustangs had the definite size advantage. Bethesda (0-3), an Anaheim-based member of the National Christian College Athletic Association, listed its tallest player at a generous 6-foot-6.
The Flames were unable to get to the free-throw line, a first for a Cal Poly opponent at least since Callero took over in 2009. The Mustangs improved to 30-1 against non-Division I programs since Cal Poly moved up from Division II in 1994.
The one loss came 49-47 at home to Cal State Monterey Bay in Callero’s second season.
Overmatching an opponent physically is such a rarity for Cal Poly, it took the Mustangs a while to ply their size advantage into a lead on the scoreboard.
The Flames led 10-7 more than five minutes into the game, but Johnson hit a 3-pointer, Chris Eversley followed that with a dunk on the fast break, Joel Awich hit a jumper and David Nwaba caught an alley-oop jam from freshman point guard Ridge Shipley to jumpstart a 27-5 Cal Poly run.
The Mustangs pushed their lead to 34-15 with 1:43 left in the first half, and grew it from there.
Nwaba, a sophomore junior college transfer who’s had double-digit points in three of the first four games, had career highs with 14 points and eight rebounds.
Sophomore center Brian Bennett had 10 points and five rebounds, and Eversley and Johnson scored seven apiece.
“A big part of it was being on the glass and being tough going for loose balls and rebounds,” Johnson said. “That was a big part of our game in the second half.”
Cal Poly finished with a 47-26 rebounding advantage, including a 14-8 edge on the offensive glass, and Bennett added a dunk in the post in the second half when Cal Poly pushed its lead to 42 points at its largest.
“It’s momentum, for sure,” Nwaba said of the jams. He also had two in the early minutes against Fresno State on Wednesday. “We all get hyped up over it and start to be more aggressive, including me. I think it’s a big part of the game. Even though it’s two points, it’s still a momentum builder.”
There was plenty of success to go around. Twelve of the 14 players who appeared for Cal Poly scored at least three points, including freshman guard Taylor Sutlive, who scored his first career points on a 3-pointer in his second career appearance.
Although scoreless in an 0-for-1 performance from the field, freshman point guard Markel Leonard made his collegiate debut, ensuring that he would not redshirt.
Thus far, Sutlive and Leonard do not appear to play large roles in the regular rotation, but Callero decided not to redshirt either this season even though having 12 players score is not likely to happen very often.
“Eight would be great,” Callero said. “Eight would be a good number. I don’t think you’re going to get 10 on a regular basis. I don’t even see playing 12 guys on a regular basis unless you’re in foul trouble.
That said, “We really feel that guards need to play. Bigs can afford to have that development year, but guards develop more by getting on the court. It doesn’t mean a kid wouldn’t still have a redshirt year, but if you think of guards redshirting, you think of them sitting back and going, darn.”