SANTA BARBARA — Anthony Silvestri is not receiving his Cal Poly basketball scholarship until next season.
Even though the 6-foot-7 junior would maintain his walk-on status for the rest of this year, though, Mustangs head coach Joe Callero made a point to tell Silvestri coming into the season about the decision to send some money his way.
“You play like a scholarship guy this year,” Callero said he told Silvestri during the offseason. “You’re a player. You’re a guy who can come in and help us win big-time games.
“That was a big-time game.”
Silvestri showed his worth Saturday, coming off the bench to score a career-high 17 points, including five 3-pointers, to ignite a 72-64 victory at rival UC Santa Barbara
(9-5, 0-1 Big West Conference).
Cal Poly (6-9, 2-0 Big West) kept its lead between eight and 12 points for most of the second half before Alan Williams and the Gauchos cut it to 58-55 with four minutes to go, but that’s when Chris Eversley and the rest of the regulars stepped in to finish off another top-rated conference opponent.
Hawaii, which the Mustangs knocked off 77-65 on Thursday, and UC Santa Barbara came into conference play with the two best records in the Big West.
Williams scored 33 points, the highest individual total by a Cal Poly opponent this season, and grabbed 15 rebounds on 12-of-21 shooting. Callero called him the most dominating big man on the West Coast, but only one other Gauchos player scored double figures, Harmon Zalmico, who had 10.
“It’s really the other guys we really want to key on,” Callero said. “If Williams gets his 25 or 30 he gets his 25 or 30, but let’s not let the other guys get there.”
Records hardly seem to matter to Cal Poly, which came into the week with the second-worst nonconference mark in the Big West but sliced through both opponents with seeming ease, winning at the Thunderdome for the first time since 2007, two years before Callero came to San Luis Obispo.
“We’re just on the right track,” said Eversley, who scored 13 points “We’ve played two great teams so far. It’s only going to get harder.”
With the lead down to three in the final minutes, Eversley hit back-to-back long-range jumpers to push the Mustangs’ lead quickly back out to eight. It was a moment of redemption for the senior forward, who had a 15-footer rattle out at the final buzzer of a two-point double-overtime loss at this building last year.
Though Eversley finished it off, Silvestri was clearly the man of the hour, getting the Mustangs offense started when it seemed the Gauchos were smothering them with a zone defense.
Unlike the Hawaii game, where Cal Poly started hot and hit its first four 3-pointers, the Mustangs missed their first five Saturday.
Cal Poly was playing stout defense as well, and 12 minutes into the first half, UC Santa Barbara had a 13-8 lead.
Then Silvestri hit three 3-pointers in a two-minute span. His fourth gave the Mustangs a 23-17 lead with 4:42 before the break, and Cal Poly went into the half up four.
Freshman sharpshooter Taylor Sutlive, who finished with 11 points, also had a couple of 3-pointers in the first as the Cal Poly bench accounted for all but four of its first-half scoring output.
“Scouting report on him is he’s a good shooter,” UC Santa Barbara head coach Bob Williams said of Silvestri, “but scouting report is don’t leave him open. And unfortunately, we made bad decisions and left him open, and he hurt us. Obviously, he hurt us bad. As a lot of their guys did.”
After missing those first five 3-pointers, Cal Poly connected on 11 of its final 15 shots from beyond the arc.
For Silvestri, it continued a recent hot streak that began with a 14-point effort in an 82-72 loss at Delaware a week ago.
Though Callero showed enough confidence in Silvestri to commit a scholarship to him for next season, Silvestri still had to earn it on the court in his own mind in order to perform.
“I struggled to shoot the ball the beginning of the year,” Silvestri said. “I wasn’t getting into the flow of the game. I’d come in and just jack a shot up, but now I’m feeling it. I’m getting a lot of extra shots up. I’m more in the flow of the game. I’m feeling a lot smoother in my shot. Now that I’ve hit a couple, my confidence is there.”
Though he helped his team to a state title his junior season at San Francisco Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in 2009, Silvestri wasn’t recruited to Cal Poly to play basketball. He had only Division III programs after him by his senior year.
In fact, Silvestri was cut in his first tryout as an uninvited walk-on for the Mustangs, but quickly making friends with former Mustangs guard Drake U’u, Silvestri retuned for another the summer before the 2012-13 season, this time making the team.
He averaged just 2.9 minutes in 11 games last season, but Callero saw Silvestri’s potential in practice.
“First of all, he’s 6-7,” Callero said. “When you’re 6-7 you get shots off that 6-2s can’t get off. No. 2 is he has a unique Larry Bird release. He catches it, he puts it way behind his head and he releases it very high. That release is very hard to get to.
“A year has made a lot of difference in his body, his game, his confidence, his aggressiveness, but when you see that magic thing in basketball, shooting touch, you better look a little longer because at the end of the day, you have to put that brown thing in the round thing, and he does that as well as anybody in the conference.”