It was too little, too late for the Cal Poly men’s basketball team Thursday night.
After a thrilling comeback that erased a 15-point deficit with less than eight minutes remaining, the Mustangs came up short in the final seconds and fell 76-73 against visiting UC Santa Barbara.
A sellout crowd of 3,032 filled Mott Athletics Center for the first edition of the 2016 Blue-Green Rivalry, and neither team disappointed in an early Big West Conference matchup.
With the Gauchos leading 68-53 with 7:41 to go, Mustangs head coach Joe Callero went to a small, quick lineup and put on a full-court pressure defense. Cal Poly slowly chipped away at the deficit and a crowd that didn’t have much to cheer about early was on its feet the rest of the way.
Senior forward Joel Awich — playing on a badly injured ankle — made a series of key plays down the stretch, including a 3-pointer with 1:29 remaining that gave the Mustangs a 73-72 lead.
It seemed fitting that UC Santa Barbara’s Gabe Vincent would get the last shot against a Cal Poly defense he torched for the better part of 40 minutes. The sophomore guard made the go-ahead layup and was fouled with 11 seconds to go, effectively putting an end to the Mustangs’ rally.
Vincent scored 17 of his career-high 27 points in the first half on 7-for-11 shooting from behind the 3-point line. As a team, UC Santa Barbara (7-8, 1-1 BWC) went 11 of 19 on 3-pointers, including 8 of 11 in the first half.
“I thought the real difference was Gabe Vincent’s first half performance,” Callero said. “At least two or three of those shots were relatively closely guarded.”
Senior guard Michael Bryson entered Thursday’s game as the leading scorer in the Big West, averaging more than 19 points per game. With the Mustangs’ defensive focus on Bryson, Vincent was able to make a few open shots early and that seemed to open the proverbial floodgate.
Even with Vincent’s hot shooting — his seven 3-pointers were a career high — Cal Poly (6-9, 0-2) kept it a two-possession game for most of the first half. Reese Morgan’s 3-pointer from the left wing with less than five minutes left pulled the Mustangs within 34-32, and Cal Poly would get no closer the rest of the half.
Senior forward Sam Beeler turned in a career-best performance for the Gauchos and he seemed to make the difference against a depleted Cal Poly frontcourt. The 6-foot-10 Beeler scored a career-high 17 points on 8-for-9 shooting, grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds and blocked three shots.
“We had to help so much on (Vincent) with the big stepping out on the screen,” Callero said, “that it open up the (pick-and-roll) and Beeler ended up having a hay day on some of the roll and the weak side action.”
Cal Poly freshman forward Josh Martin made his home debut and delivered a few plays that should have Mustang fans excited. The 6-8 transfer from Minnesota scored a career-high 12 points and had a big-time rebound put-back dunk in the second half.
Brian Bennett, who also has been dealing with a series of injuries all season, came off the bench to score 13 points and grab six rebounds.
“We’ve shown that we can do a lot of really good things,” Martin said. “All we’ve got to do is string a lot of really good things together for 40 minutes.
“I feel like we can compete with anybody in our conference.”
Do-everything senior David Nwaba led the Mustangs with 16 points, nine rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes. He scored the first five points of the decisive 12-2 run that pulled Cal Poly out of a 15-point hole.
After Vincent made the go-ahead layup with 11 seconds remaining, Nwaba got a decent look going to the basket for a layup but the shot didn’t fall.
“We cleared out, I thought I had a lay in but, I mean, everyone just came and attacked,” Nwaba said. “I wish I could take back the play, but, oh well.”
The Mustangs won’t have much time to dwell on the loss with Long Beach State coming to San Luis Obispo for a 7 p.m. game on Saturday.