Playing on its home court for the first time in 40 days, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team turned in a memorable performance Thursday night against visiting UC Santa Barbara.
A sellout crowd of more than 3,000 filled the seats inside Mott Athletics Center for the Mustangs’ Big West Conference home opener. Despite a remarkable second-half rally that erased all of a 15-point deficit, Cal Poly couldn’t overcome a breakout performance from Gauchos’ sophomore Gabe Vincent in a 76-73 defeat.
It was the third consecutive loss and sixth in the last seven games for the Mustangs (6-9, 0-2 Big West), who face a quick turnaround before hosting an athletic Long Beach State team at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“They realize these are very good teams we’re playing with very good players,” seventh-year head coach Joe Callero said. “You lose at the buzzer, you don’t sell everything you’ve done. You’ve got to get two plays better and that’s very doable.”
After trailing 68-53 with 7:41 remaining, Cal Poly went to a full-court pressure defense that lifted the Mustangs out of an offensive slump and breathed new life into the packed arena.
The result was a 20-4 run that put Cal Poly ahead 73-72 with 1:29 left in the game. Senior forward Joel Awich knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give the Mustangs their first lead of the second half. It was one of several timely plays Awich made down the stretch.
Awich led the team in scoring for most of the 13-game nonconference schedule, but a nagging ankle injury limited the 6-foot-9 forward over the past two weeks. He played only nine minutes against UC Santa Barbara, but scored seven points, grabbed four rebounds and had one assist during that time.
“We know Joel’s playing on one leg,” said Callero, who coached in his 100th Big West game on Thursday. “… His ankle is a mess right now.”
The Gauchos (7-8, 1-1 BWC), who have won 11 of the last 14 matchups in the Blue-Green Rivalry, had plenty of time left following Awich’s 3-pointer.
After the teams exchanged empty possessions, Vincent made a difficult layup in the key and was fouled, giving UC Santa Barbara a one-point lead with 11 seconds remaining.
Cal Poly’s do-everything senior David Nwaba drove to the basket and had a good look at a game-winning shot, but it didn’t fall. Eric Childress then made two free throws at the other end to bring the score to its final margin.
Nwaba led the Mustangs with 16 points, nine rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes. It was his sixth consecutive double-digit scoring effort and a team-leading 10th time he’s scored at least 10 points this season.
Senior forward Brian Bennett — a second-team all-Big West performer a year ago — came off the bench to score 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting, to go with six rebounds.
Perhaps the most encouraging performance came from redshirt freshman forward Josh Martin. The explosive 6-foot-8 transfer from Minnesota provided a noticeable spark off the bench and was in the game for most of Cal Poly’s second-half surge.
Martin scored a career-high 12 points and grabbed four rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench. With Awich’s ankle potentially limiting his production moving forward, Martin could be coming on at just the right time for the Mustangs.
“I just was trying to hustle and do my best to give 100 percent,” said Martin, a Seattle native. “Regardless of the outcome, I’m happy with giving 100 percent. Hustle plays make the difference in the end usually.”
This difference Thursday night was Vincent’s red-hot shooting.
Playing alongside the Big West scoring leader in Michael Bryson, Vincent took advantage of a couple of early opportunities and was in some sort of rhythm the rest of the way. He scored 17 of the Gauchos’ first 19 points and finished the game with a career-high 27 points on 7-for-11 shooting from behind the 3-point line.
No shot was bigger than his and-one layup with 11 seconds remaining, which put the final dagger in a resilient Cal Poly comeback.
“We kept a lot of focus on Bryson,” Callero said, “but Gabe Vincent was the guy carrying the sward around tonight and making those plays.”
Senior center Sam Beeler recorded a double-double with a career-high 17 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. Bryson, who averages more than 19 points per game, finished with a relatively pedestrian 13 points in 36 minutes.
The Mustangs will have their hands full with another talented scorer coming to Mott Athletics Center on Saturday night in Long Beach State’s senior guard Nick Faust. A 6-6, 210-pound transfer from Maryland, Faust ranks fourth in the Big West in scoring at 16.3 points per contest.
He’s scored in double figures in all 18 games this season and is coming off a 19-point effort in a 58-54 loss to UC Irvine on Thursday.
“All I know is, the Faust kid right now is a conference player-of-the-year candidate,” Callero said. “He’s a high major athlete. He’s the kind of kid that’s going to be in an NBA training camp, without a doubt. He has that skillset.”