It had all the makings of a Mott miracle — except one final detail.
Spurred by the largest Mott Athletics Center crowd in years, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team rallied from a 10-point deficit in the final 2:49, but Jamal Johnson’s buzzer-beating running jumper a step inside the 3-point line hit the back rim, bounced back up and out of the cylinder.
Long Beach State held on for a 63-62 victory, the first by a Big West Conference road team at MAC since the 49ers won one two years ago.
Johnson, a 6-foot senior point guard, beat all the big men for a rebound on a missed free throw on one end and darted up the length of the court in less than four seconds, spinning for the shot.
It would have been his first game-winner in a Cal Poly uniform. Instead, the Mustangs have their perfect start to Big West Conference play tarnished, and an impressive streak of conference home victories came to an end.
“Sometimes, you have those go in,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, you have them go out. It’s one of those days where it went out. It felt good. It looked on track. My teammates picked me up. They believe I’m going to make the next one. That’s how it’s going to go.”
In the postgame news conference, Cal Poly already seemed past the disappointment of a 16-game home conference winning streak falling by the wayside. The dashed opportunity to move to 4-0 in the Big West for the first time in program history was glossed over to see the big picture.
The season is long, and the Mustangs (7-10, 3-1 Big West) are still in good shape with road games at Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside scheduled for next week.
“We lost the game,” said senior forward Chris Eversley, who scored a team-high 16 points and hit a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left to cut the deficit to one. “I don’t look at it as we had a long winning streak at home. I’m more disappointed that we got beat by 13 on the boards.
“We definitely made some detrimental plays throughout the game. It never really comes down to that last possession. There’s 59 other possessions before the 60th.
“But what can you do about it besides just fight back?”
Johnson finished with nine points, including two 3-pointers, and went without a turnover for the second straight game, totaling 10 assists in the span. After being shut out in the first half, senior guard Kyle Odister bounced back to score 10 in the second, and David Nwaba scored eight for Cal Poly.
But it wasn’t enough to counter Long Beach State (6-12, 2-2 Big West), which got a game-high 20 points and nine rebounds from UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb, 14 points from point guard Mike Caffey and 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds down low from Dan Jennings.
Eversley was right. The 49ers bullied their way on the offensive glass, outrebounding Cal Poly 18-9 before the Mustangs grabbed a string of second chances in the final 2:16.
Long Beach State had a 41-28 overall rebound advantage, showcasing a combination of size and athleticism Cal Poly had not seen in Big West victories over Hawaii, UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Northridge.
“They’re one of the biggest teams” in the conference, Eversley said, “but not just that, they’re more athletic. They have the length and athleticism, and then Long Beach also throws the speed in there.”
With Lamb leading an efficient offense, Cal Poly had a hard time getting enough stops to cut into the 49ers lead, which hovered between six and nine points for most of the second half.
But when Jennings scored a layup to make it 62-52 with 2:49 left, the Mustangs and the 2,924 fans at MAC — the most since a 3,032 sellout against UC Santa Barbara in January 2012 — came alive.
Eversley hit two pressure-packed 3-pointers, Joel Awich and Johnson each scored a layup, and Caffey missed the front end of a one-and-one trip to the free-throw line in the final seconds to help give the Mustangs a chance to win.
Cal Poly appeared to have the game under control early. The Mustangs jumped out to a 10-point lead and held a 19-9 advantage nearly midway through the first half.
Then, Cal Poly’s offense completely dried up as the Mustangs went scoreless over the next 7:50.
Not only did Cal Poly suffer from the field, the Mustangs also seemed to lose confidence at the free-throw line. They were just 4 of 13 in the first half and finished 10 of 23 from the line, with the 43.5 percent mark for the game being the worst of the season.
As part of a 19-2 run, Long Beach State built a 32-29 halftime lead and carried that momentum over to the second half.
If not for the furious comeback, Cal Poly might feel worse about its effort, but all things considered, the Mustangs are keeping it in perspective.
“I’m impressed about what we’ve done so far,” Eversley said, “and I’m optimistic about where we’re going.”