Nobody is running away with the Big West Conference, but if the Cal Poly men’s basketball team keeps it up, it’ll be run out of the title race.
The Mustangs were among the hottest teams to start the season, but since building a 16-game home winning streak in conference play, they’ve lost the past two at Mott Athletic Center and three of the past four overall, including the past two to the bottom two teams in the Big West standings.
The latest was Thursday’s 62-58 home loss to last place UC Davis (7-14, 2-4 Big West) ahead of an ESPNU showdown against first-place UC Irvine in San Luis Obispo on Saturday.
Cal Poly (8-12, 4-3 Big West) is hoping to get senior sharpshooter Kyle Odister back for that one. He has been out the past three games with an injured foot.
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Without the shooter known for late-game heroics, the Mustangs have struggled down the stretch. A similar subpar second half led to last Saturday’s defeat at UC Riverside, which ascended from the conference cellar with that victory.
“Really we’ve just got to keep that intensity that we had in the first half and keep it going in the second half,” said sophomore forward Joel Awich, who scored eight points, including two emphatic second-half slam dunks that kept Cal Poly in the game.
“We’re kind of slow in the second half, and I think that’s what’s killing us.”
This time, Cal Poly took a nine-point second-half lead and turned it into a deficit with uncharacteristic turnovers.
Seven of the Mustangs’ 12 turnovers came during the first 10 minutes of the second half, when their lead grew to nine before whittling down to nothing. UC Davis took its first lead since the opening minutes of the game at 42-41 on a deep two-pointer by Ryan Sypkens with 10:10 left.
“This defeat hurts more in my mind than losing on the road at Riverside,” said Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero, who lost back-to-back games at home for the first time since 2010-11. “We’ve got to be able to protect our home court, and more than that, you’ve got to be able to protect your lead and protect the basketball.
“That’s where I thought the game was lost, the first seven minutes of the second half.”
From there, it remained a one- or two-possession game until the end.
UC Davis only took control for good when Jamal Johnson and Chris Eversley failed to connect on 3-point attempts with the Aggies leading 61-58 in the final 20 seconds.
Eversley finished with a game-high 17 points, grabbed six rebounds and became the 19th player in program history to surpass 1,000 points in his career. David Nwaba added 14 points, and Awich pitched in eight.
Hawkins led UC Davis with 16 points and six assists, including a dagger 3-pointer in the final two minutes. The conference’s second-leading scorer at 18.2 points game, however, was held to just five first-half points after picking up his second foul in the first seven minutes.
Sypkens had 14 points, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range, and the Aggies got 11 points from Avery Johnson and 10 points and six rebounds by Georgi Funtarov.
Now, Saturday’s nationally televised game doesn’t quite have the same luster as it did when it was picked up by the network.
Cal Poly fell to fourth place with the loss, though the Mustangs are just half a game behind UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and either Long Beach State and Hawaii, who are knotted in a first-place tie at 4-2.
Players said they had no trouble focusing on UC Davis with a televised home game looming.
“That game was going to happen,” Eversley said. “So, we did a good job of making sure our guys were mentally here tonight before we go to Saturday because win or lose, we’re still going to play Saturday night, and it’s still going to be on TV.
“Since I’ve been here, this has been a conference where anybody can beat anybody on any given night. We’ve picked up wins on the road we weren’t supposed to, and we’ve had losses at home we weren’t supposed to. It’s the law of averages and with our team, I’ll take those averages.”
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