Cal Poly passed what head coach Joe Callero described as the “biggest character check” of the year Saturday night.
Coming off a difficult loss two days earlier, the Mustangs turned in a solid defensive performance on the way to a 77-65 win against visiting Fresno State in a nonconference men’s basketball game inside Mott Athletics Center.
In front of a crowd of more than 2,800 spectators, Cal Poly led wire-to-wire and limited an athletic Bulldogs squad to one of its worst offensive performances of the season.
That improved effort stemmed from an uneven showing against IPFW on Thursday night, a somewhat surprising two-point loss that ended Cal Poly’s four-game winning streak. Callero and his coaching staff emphasized defensive fundamentals during a spirited practice Friday and it seemed to carry over against Fresno State.
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“There was as much intensity I’ve shown to that group of guys for a couple years,” Callero said of the practice session. “… We’ve got to play with a more dialed in team focus on help and recovery.
“We’re capable of beating any team on any court at any time of the year.”
It would be hard to argue against that point after that way the Mustangs (5-3) played against the Bulldogs from the opening tip.
Fresno State (6-2) has dominated the series with Cal Poly historically, winning 16 of the past 17 meetings heading into Saturday’s matchup. But this resilient Mustangs group never faltered, relying on the experience they gained during early-season games against traditional powers UNLV and UCLA to secure their first home win against Fresno State since 1971.
“It definitely (helps),” sophomore guard Taylor Sutlive said. “Those teams are also very athletic and very high major teams. So when we play them it just helps more when playing teams like Fresno State.”
Sutlive did not miss a shot from the field and delivered the best statistical performance of his career. Sutlive scored 16 points on 5-for-5 shooting, including a 3-for-3 mark from behind the 3-point line.
It was the fourth straight game and sixth time this season Sutlive made multiple 3-pointers. He was one make away from matching his season-high of four 3-pointers set against UCLA in mid-November.
Callero said Sutlive had a difficult time defensively against IPFW earlier in the week, and his improved effort on that end of the floor benefited his offensive production.
“When you’re locked in on defense,” Callero said, “you can relax and you flow a little more on the offensive end.”
Sophomore Luke Meikle had another strong game and scored 15 points off the bench, also shooting 5-for-5 from the field. Senior Reese Morgan added 14 points, including all eight of his free throw attempts, and senior Joel Awich chipped in 10 points in the victory.
Senior David Nwaba contributed nine points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a game-high 33 minutes.
“I told him, it’s legal to get a triple-double,” Callero said. “Go for it.”
Struggling to find its offensive rhythm early on, Fresno State missed its first six shots from the field and was held scoreless for nearly five minutes.
Preseason Mountain West Player of the Year Marvelle Harris eventually snapped the dry spell with a 3-pointer, but the shooting wouldn’t get much better the remainder of the half. Harris needed 20 shot attempts to score 12 points, and Cezar Guerrero added 15 to lead the Bulldogs, which shot 34.8 percent for the game.
Averaging 78 points per game entering Saturday’s contest, the Bulldogs were held to a season-low 24 points in the opening 20 minutes on 28.1 percent shooting. They out-rebounded Cal Poly, 41-38, and committed only six turnovers but lost for the second time in their last three games.
Sutlive was the sixth Mustang to lead Cal Poly in scoring this season in what has developed into one of the most complete team’s in Callero’s tenure.
“It really shows just how deep we are,” Sutlive said. “We’re getting the ball up on offense and moving a lot trying to run more than last year. So we’ve got a lot of guys that can come in and make efforts and just as much action as anybody else can.”
Meikle certainly plays a role in that improved depth.
The 6-foot-9 reserve forward scored in double figures for the third consecutive game and fourth time overall this season. Meikle said the Mustangs felt like they should have defeated IPFW, and the intense practice Friday proved to be a springboard into one of the team’s strongest all-around efforts of the year.
“Any time you lose you want to come back even stronger and we want to win, especially with this year’s team,” Meikle said. “We’re a good team and we feel like we can beat anybody.”