With a fresh paint job and new twin high-definition replay boards at either end of the gym, there was a lot of new atmosphere to take in at Mott Athletics Center for the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s home opener Tuesday.
Brian Bennett only snuck a look at the big screens once.
There were quite a few highlight-reel plays in the Mustangs’ 65-44 victory over visiting NCAA Division II opponent San Francisco State, but only one that was must-see from the junior center’s perspective — junior forward David Nwaba’s two-handed alley-oop jam delivered by Ridge Shipley to end the first half.
The replay boards are “definitely a great thing for the fans experience,” Bennett said, “but being out on the court, you don’t let it distract you. You’re just so into the game, you saw it live, so you don’t need to see the replay all the time, but Dave’s was pretty sick.”
Nwaba and Bennett scored 13 points apiece to lead Cal Poly (1-1), tying for the team high with seven rebounds, and together with junior forward Joel Awich, the trio made a case for the Mustangs’ frontcourt to play the leading role in the offense this season.
Nwaba said Cal Poly had to take advantage of its size, considering the Gators didn’t start a player taller than 6-foot-6. With Bennett at 6-9 and Awich at 6-7, the Mustangs won’t typically have the same kind of height advantage against their nonconference Division I opponents.
That said, Nwaba and Bennett were supposed to be hobbling into the game.
Nwaba was questionable to play after spraining his ankle while scoring 11 in 26 minutes of a 65-49 loss at Nevada on Saturday. Additionally, he’s still recovering from surgery to his right wrist performed about a month ago.
On Tuesday, Nwaba was 4-of-7 shooting and 5 of 6 from the free-throw line and performed more than one high-flying feat — without noticeably favoring either foot.
“David rolled his ankle” at Nevada, Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “It was the size of an apple during the game. He couldn’t walk off the court. In 48 hours, he was able to get the swelling down, get it taped up and still bounce around like a high-major athlete out there.” Bennett played 29 minutes against the Wolf Pack but did not start the season-opener, and Callero had concerns about his conditioning since Bennett missed about a week of training camp with his own ankle injury.
In 26 minutes Tuesday, Bennett was 5 of 6 from the field and 3 for 4 from the free-throw line with two blocks and a steal defensively. It was the most he’d scored since putting up 16 against North Dakota on Nov. 29, 2013.
Bennett read nothing into the fact that Cal Poly’s big men had their way with San Francisco State, helping improve the Mustangs’ record to 40-1 against Division II opposition since Cal Poly made the move to Division I in 1994-95.
“Honestly, I think any one of our players in any given game could step up,” Bennett said. “For the most part, any one of us could go off for a game. It doesn’t have to be just me, Dave and Joel all year. Anyone on this team is very capable of doing this.”
Even for all of his constant knee troubles, junior guard Reese Morgan has been one of the most reliable players early this season, too.
Morgan had a team-high 13 points and seven rebounds against Nevada and then put up nine points on the Gators, also tying for the team highs with seven rebounds and two steals.
Morgan was just 1 of 5 from the field — all from 3-point range — but made up for some cold shooting by drawing fouls and making 6 of 7 free throws.
Morgan came to Cal Poly as the program’s first Parade high-school All-America honoree as a high-scoring sharp-shooter, but he has played in only 41 games after repeat knee surgeries in his first three years on campus with a career scoring average of 5.5 points per game including the first two games of this season.
Morgan’s knee troubles have continued to limit him in practice this season.
Callero said he is operating at 90 percent, while assessing Bennett 85 percent and Nwaba at 80.
The excitement of playing the first home game — with all of the added accoutrement — since Cal Poly’s improbable run to the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth last March also may have also dulled some of the pain.
“I think that we’re seeing a kind of adrenaline and a toughness and a commitment to playing through some things,” Callero said.
Cal Poly never trailed San Francisco State, which counted the game as an exhibition, and opened the first half on an 8-0 run.
fueled by two scores down low by Bennett.
The Gators got the lead down to 3 on a 3-pointer by Derrick Brown, who scored a game-high 15, midway through the first half, but Nwaba’s dunk to end the half got the Mustangs’ lead back to 32-20.
Cal Poly stretched its lead to 18 on a Nwaba layup less than four minutes of the second half, but San Francisco State used a 14-7 run to cut the deficit to eight with 11:02 left.
Morgan hit a couple of free throws, transfer guard Kyle Toth, who had eight points, hit one of his two 3-pointers and Awich slammed home an alley-oop off the glass from Morgan after Morgan stole the ball near midcourt to push the lead back to 15.
With 4:46 left in the game, a second Toth 3-pointer grew the lead to 22, and the teams combined to score one point the rest of the way as the Mustangs looked to the bench.
In a 74-64 loss at Long Beach State on Saturday, the Gators made it a game with the 49ers, trailing by as few as four in the waning moments of the game. San Francisco State appeared poised to make Tuesday’s game another close one before Cal Poly took over for good.
“The best part,” Callero said, “was that we answered the answer.”