With just seconds remaining, Ridge Shipley took the outlet pass and burst up the court.
Eyeing the 3-point line, the point guard shifted out of full speed and pulled up for the jumper.
As the buzzer sounded, the ball darted straight through the hoop, but it didn’t win the game. Far from it, in fact.
In the grand scheme of things, the last-second 3 seemed like just an innocuous footnote in the
Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s disappointing 16-point blowout loss to rival UC Santa Barbara in the season finale at Mott Athletics Center a week and a half ago.
The Gauchos’ lead was 20 going into the final two minutes, and Shipley’s shot did little to cool the sting.
The Mustangs’ hot 3-0 start to conference play had culminated in a humiliating low. Cal Poly had lost nine of 11 and came dangerously close to being left out of the Big West Tournament altogether.
Yet, at the time, the freshman point guard’s determination epitomized the spirit that would help the Mustangs whip UC Santa Barbara in the conference tournament five days later and complete the most improbable run to the title in Big West Conference history.
“When you’re getting smacked on your own senior night, it’s your own home court, that chip on your shoulder just gets bigger and bigger,” Shipley said, “and no matter how much time’s left on clock I’m going to come down and try to punch someone in the face with a bucket.”
A darkhorse that nobody saw coming, Cal Poly heads into its first ever NCAA Tournament game today at least partly because Shipley was still trying to hit the one shot that eluded him at Carrollton (Texas) Hebron High last season.
“He was trying to score,” Mustangs head coach Joe Callero said about Shipley’s buzzer-beater in the loss to the Guachos. “It doesn’t matter if you’re ahead by 20, down by 20, middle of the game, end of the game, just create a habit. Try to take the best shot you can and try to make it. Some kids wouldn’t even have shot it. He’s trying to make a shot, trying to make a play. It wasn’t going to be a 20-point shot, but it’s going to be a shot.”
Shipley went on to hit THE shot for Cal Poly, a 3-pointer from the top of the key that gave the Mustangs the lead for good in the final seconds of a 61-59 victory over Cal State Northridge in Saturday’s Big West Tournament final.
Cal Poly didn’t have an abundance of time to celebrate before the team boarded a charter flight early Monday morning for Dayton, Ohio, where the Mustangs (13-19) will face Southwestern Athletic Conference Champion Texas Southern (19-14) at 3:40 p.m.
The game will be televised on TruTV, and the winner earns the rights to the No. 16 seed in the Midwest Region, where it will play No. 1 Wichita State (34-0) in St. Louis on Friday.
To advance, Cal Poly will have to contend with 6-foot-10 center Aaric Murray, an NBA prospect averaging 21 points and eight rebounds, and a Texas Southern program led by head coach Mike Davis, who took Indiana to the national title game in 2002.
However, of the tornado of revelry that occurred in the 24-hour period after capturing the Big West title, it mostly revolved around Shipley.
While his shot was featured on ESPN SportsCenter’s top-10 plays, Shipley entered the Honda Center locker room to find 180 text messages on his phone.
On Twitter, one fan noted his two daughters attending Cal Poly and wished to have Shipley as a future son-in-law.
A local restaurant displayed a sandwich board proclaiming “Shipley eats for free.”
While NCAA rules prohibit athletes from accepting complimentary meals — or wives — as gifts, the message was clear: Shipley has lost all anonymity in San Luis Obispo.
“Just hearing what different people have to say,” Shipley said, “that that shot is the biggest shot in Cal Poly history, I just kind of step back, and, well, I’m 19 years old, and something like that is going to be known in history. It’s crazy to think about and such a blessing and such a great opportunity to have in my life and to be able to do that for this team and community.”
Just like Shipley was two weeks ago, the manner in which he ended his high school career was also a relative unknown here in town.
Riding a 34-game win streak and trying to get Hebron to the Texas state basketball tournament for the first time in the 14-year history of the school, Shipley took a last-second 3-pointer in the 2013 Class 5A Region I championship game that Hawks coach Mark Bishop swore rolled around the rim four times before falling out in a two-point loss to South Grand Prairie, the eventual state runner-up.
Bishop described a devastating pile-up of hugs and tears after the miss for his star, who earned all-state first-team honors after averaging 18 points and five assists per game.
“He carried that with him for the whole year,” Bishop said, “and to have a chance to make a game-winner or do something great for your team is something he would always want to do. He’s very much a team-oriented kid.
“A lot of people are going to run to the corners or they’re going to shy away from that shot. He was the guy late in the game that we would want the ball in his hands. He has a knack for making those plays.”
It took some time for Shipley to begin making an impact for the Mustangs. He was shooting just 22 percent from long range in nonconference play.
Gaining confidence, he would nearly double that mark in Big West games and upped his season 3-point percentage to 35.3 and his overall shooting to 35.2 percent from the field.
He still averaged little more than three points in 14 minutes per game going into the conference tournament, where he fully blossomed.
Though senior Chris Eversley averaged 12.3 points and was the tournament MVP, Shipley averaged 10.7 points in the three games, perhaps giving a glimpse of a bright future beyond this magical run.
Sophomore David Nwaba averaged 14 points in the Big West Tournament, and sophomore center Zach Gordon followed up Shipley’s go-ahead 3-pointer by taking a charge that neutralized Cal State Northridge’s best chance to retake the lead.
“It shows how the program is going,” Eversley said, “which direction it’s going in with Ridge as the point guard and being able to shift to the off guard. It just show that this underclass, they’re going to be doing big things for while if they can step up and make big plays like that.”