When the college basketball season began more than two months ago, Cal Poly men’s basketball coach Joe Callero said the Mustangs’ depth would be one of their biggest strengths this winter.
It took some time for Cal Poly to incorporate several key newcomers with its top five returning scorers from a year ago, while veterans Taylor Sutlive and Zach Gordon returned from season-ending knee injuries.
A challenging 13-game nonconference scheduled helped the Mustangs prepare for what is shaping up to be an exciting season in the Big West Conference. Playing its first conference home games of the season last week, Cal Poly showed flashes of what makes this year’s team arguably the best in Callero’s tenure.
After losing to UC Santa Barbara in the Blue-Green Rivalry Thursday night — a game the Mustangs came all the way back from a 15-point second-half deficit — Cal Poly regrouped and held off a strong Long Beach State team in double overtime on Saturday.
“We were as athletic as Long Beach State — that’s rare,” Callero said. “We have not said that in that past. Over the course of recruiting, we’re starting to show a little more length and bounce and athleticism to make those plays.”
The Mustangs (7-9, 1-2 Big West) avoided a fourth consecutive loss by beating the 49ers for just the third time in the past 13 meetings between the schools. For the second game in a row, a sellout crowd showed up to Mott Athletics Center to watch two of the more emotionally charged games this season.
Fans in attendance Saturday night saw the best version of this Mustangs group.
All-conference senior Brian Bennett was a force inside, scoring 21 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in 27 minutes off the bench. He spearheaded a resilient effort from Cal Poly’s deep frontcourt that had little trouble against Long Beach State (8-11, 1-2 Big West).
Gordon had 11 points, five rebounds and two key blocks in only eight minutes. Redshirt freshman Josh Martin (14 points, three rebounds) and senior Joel Awich (12 points, six rebounds) each came off the bench and delivered several key plays down the stretch.
“We know that we can play with anyone in our conference,” Bennett said. “The Big West is so talented this year, every team is so good and night in, night out it’s going to be a dogfight just like (Saturday) was.”
With Awich, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder for most of the nonconference schedule, slowed by a nagging ankle injury, the emergence of Martin couldn’t have come at a better time.
Josh Martin throws down a left-handed dunk
Martin sat out an NCAA-mandated redshirt year last season after transferring from Minnesota. Since becoming eligible in late December, he’s continually provided the Mustangs with an explosive scoring bunch off the bench.
The 6-foot-8, 212-pound Martin has scored at least 12 points in three of the past five contests and threw down a handful of dunks in both games against UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State.
“He brings so much energy and he does that on a nightly basis, which is huge for us,” senior guard Reese Morgan said. “Super athletic, able to board and contest shots. That helps us a lot.”
Without Morgan, it’s safe to say the Mustangs would be looking up at a 0-3 hole in the Big West as they go back on the road this week to play at CSUN and Cal State Fullerton.
Trailing 80-75 with 49 seconds left in regulation Saturday night, Morgan scored five points in 13 seconds — two free throws and a 3-pointer — to send the game to overtime. He scored all 14 of his points in the second half and overtime, marking the 10th time this season Morgan has scored in double figures.
Reese Morgan’s 3-pointer ties the score at 80-all
In the first overtime period, Awich scored six of Cal Poly’s eight points, including another timely 3-pointer similar to the one he made against the Gauchos two days earlier.
By the time double overtime started, the 49ers were without two of their leading scorers in Nick Faust and Travis Hammonds, who both fouled out in the final minute of regulation.
The Mustangs would take their first lead since the opening minute of the game, 92-91, when Bennett split a pair of free throws with 1:34 remaining. Two more free throws from Morgan in the final seconds sealed the victory and gave Cal Poly its first multiple-overtime victory at home since 1972.
“It shows that we can finish a game even when things aren’t necessarily perfect,” Morgan said.
“I haven’t heard it that loud in Mott maybe my whole career. Maybe only a couple times.”