ANAHEIM — Before last year, a No. 7 seed had never won the Big West Conference Tournament.
After breaking the mold in the program’s first run to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team found out what life is supposed to be like for a typical seventh seed Thursday.
Junior center Brian Bennett outscored heralded UC Santa Barbara senior big man Alan Williams, and the Mustangs (13-16) had a chance to tie or take the lead in the final 10 seconds, but second-seeded UC Santa Barbara eventually made Cal Poly’s stay at Honda Center a short one with a 54-50 victory in the tournament’s opening round.
Even considering last season’s groundbreaking and improbable run to the tourney title, an NCAA First Four appearance and all of the hoopla that went along with it, the disappointment was tempered in Cal Poly’s postgame news conference.
“Coming in last year as the number seven seed, we weren’t surprised that we won,” Mustangs head coach Joe Callero said, “and as the number seven seed we weren’t surprised that we lost.
“There’s not a magnitude that increased on it from last year.”
The Gauchos (19-12) avenged a 31-point loss to the Mustangs in the exact same two vs. seven seed matchup a year ago and advance to face UC Irvine in the semifinals at 9 tonight. Top-seeded UC Davis will play Hawaii at 6:30 p.m. in the other side of the bracket.
Michael Bryson, an all-conference guard for the Gauchos, sealed the victory by blocking Cal Poly guard Ridge Shipley as Shipley drove the lane for a potential score-tying bucket with 9.2 seconds left.
It was in this building where Shipley announced his presence with a game-winning last-minute 3-pointer as a freshman in the tournament title game against CSUN last year. This time, Bryson made sure Shipley would have to wait another year to build upon that glory and hit two pressure-packed free throws with eight seconds left.
The Mustangs got the ball down the court in the final seconds, but a desperation shot by Reese Morgan was long, and with a four-point deficit, the foul Cal Poly needed to potentially tie the score never came from UC Santa Barbara.
Bennett scored 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field and grabbed four rebounds. Williams scored 19 on 7-of-13 shooting from the field with nine rebounds as the two post players essentially neutralized each other.
Senior guard Maliik Love had 10 points, five rebounds and a team-leading four assists in his final career game. Junior forward Joel Awich also scored 10 and had a team-high six rebounds.
Bryson had 14 points, including six of the final 10 for the Gauchos, and teammate John Green had 11 points and a team-leading three assists.
Cal Poly trailed by as many as eight points in the second half and only trimmed the lead to seven with 7:29 left in the game, but the Mustangs clawed back into the game with defensive pressure and rebounding, forcing the Gauchos into 13 turnovers and outpacing them 9-5 on the offensive glass.
Though UC Santa Barbara led by as many as five in the first half, Cal Poly kept the game within reach by limiting the Gauchos to 27 first-half points. The Mustangs trailed by five at the break but remained within double digits the entire game and made spectators believe until the very end that lightning could strike twice.
“Coming in, we definitely thought we could beat them, and we definitely knew if we didn’t play good, they could beat us,” Bennett said. “I felt on the court and all my teammates felt we all played good and played hard. If there’s 42 minutes in the game, we might have found a way to win, but it’s only 40 minutes long.”