SANTA BARBARA — When the game ended, it was impossible to ignore the deja vu.
Would the Cal Poly men’s basketball team have another revenge rematch against UC Santa Barbara? Would the Mustangs inexplicably turn things around and make a run to the Big West Conference Tournament title? Could they recapture the magic of last year’s NCAA Tournament run?
Immediately following Cal Poly’s 64-56 loss to the Gauchos on Saturday, the details of the regular-season finale seemed hauntingly similar to last season — right down to the No. 7 seed the Mustangs entered the conference tournament with in 2014.
Perhaps it was all a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero acknowledged the repeating history, but said reliving the past could be a trap.
“At times this year, I felt like maybe we were waiting for the tournament to think that’s when we’re going to make it happen,” Callero said, “and you can’t fall into that.”
Because of UC Irvine’s loss to UC Davis later Saturday, Cal Poly (13-15, 6-10 Big West) will play UC Santa Barbara at 8:30 p.m. when the Big West Tournament tips off Thursday in Anaheim’s Honda Center.
The Mustangs were handed a humbling loss by the Gauchos (18-12, 11-5 Big West) in the regular-season finale last year before turning around five days later to stun second-seeded UC Santa Barbara 69-38, the 31-point blowout ranking as one of the most lopsided in Big West Tournament history.
Cal Poly went on to edge top-seeded UC Irvine 61-58 the following day.
The Gauchos certainly remember the frustrating defeat and have been focused on preventing a repeat for months.
“This group has taken care of business to make sure there are no surprises,” UC Santa Barbara head coach Bob Williams said, “and they’ve really been excellent at this, I would say, the past eight weeks. I would say they’ve been on task; they’ve been really focused. There are no excuses. We don’t have an excuse for last year.”
On Saturday, UC Santa Barbara surged to a double-digit halftime lead, one that Cal Poly would completely erase, and rallied late to pull away. Senior big man Alan Williams had a game-high 26 points, 19 rebounds, all defensive, and two blocks for UC Santa Barbara.
John Green was the only other Gauchos player to score in double figures after upping his total to 11 with an emphatic two-handed slam with 1:16 left to effectively put away the Mustangs.
Brian Bennett had a team-high 14 points and six rebounds for Cal Poly, and David Nwaba, in his return to the starting lineup for the first time in a month, had 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field.
Nwaba missed most of February recovering from a viral infection and sat out two more games after a heath scare involving a heart exam. Fully cleared from those issues, Nwaba was forced to the bench once again Saturday when his left hand was hit while he grabbed for a rebound early in the second half.
UC Santa Barbara still held an eight-point lead when Nwaba was hurt, but when he returned to the game eight minutes later, the junior wing immediately hit a driving shot on the baseline to give Cal Poly its first and only lead since the first basket of the game.
“At halftime, we stressed communicating and just sticking to our guns,” Bennett said. “We have our gameplan. Just keep going and match their intensity. We were just trying to sustain that and keep pushing and punching.”
After the Gauchos rallied to retake a five-point lead, Bennett hit a jumper inside to cut it to 54-51 with 3:43 left.
It was as close as the Mustangs would get as UC Santa Barbara went back up by 10 before a score by Ridge Shipley cut it to eight in the final minute.
The late swoon continued a troubling trend for Cal Poly, which has seen several scoring droughts doom them late in games.
“There’s some very encouraging portions of the game,” Callero said. “The bottom line is the discouraging positions have got to be improved upon, and it’s kind of been the same song.”
The Mustangs have largely been competitive in conference games. Of their 10 Big West losses, only two have come by double digits. It’s usually been a late decisive stretch that has sunk Cal Poly.
While the trend is clearly negative, the competitiveness of those losses does inspire some hope in the Mustangs that they can pull off another surprise run come tournament time.
“Communication are the two biggest issues for our team during that 40 minutes,” Callero said. “When we’re dialed in for that amount of time and are really communicating well and concentrating well, I really do believe we’re in a position to beat anybody in conference down at the Big West Tournament.”