3,626 strong held their breath at the Honda Center.
With true freshman guard Ridge Shipley’s 3-pointer in mid flight, 14 seconds on the clock and the Cal Poly men’s basketball team trailing Cal State Northridge by two points, the Mustangs’ Cinderella story culminated in a truly fairytale ending.
Shipley’s shot found the net, the Honda Center exhaled, and moments later, Cal Poly found itself with a 61-59 victory, a Big West Conference title and its first-ever ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
“It was surreal,” senior forward Chris Eversley said. “It felt like a Disney movie.”
But it wouldn’t be a true Cinderella story without struggle.
Saturday’s contest — the closest Big West Tournament championship game in 10 years — was a 40-minute marathon of back-and-forth basketball and constant lead changes.
Cal Poly got off to a slow start, but its shooting percentage skyrocketed when it mattered most, reaching 59.1 percent in the second half compared to 34.5 in the first.
Through it all, Cal Poly’s success was driven not by one player, but by contributions across the board.
Eversley, the tournament MVP, lead Cal Poly with 18 points. But it was Eversley who had an opportunity to tie the game with seconds left on the clock, and instead, dished the ball to Shipley, who nailed the game-winner. He finished the night with 14 points.
“To be honest, it’s really like a blank memory right now,” Shipley said. “I’ve been dreaming of that kind of shot for a while and I made it, so I’m not really too sure what happened on the play I just know I shot it and made it.”
Sophomore forward Zach Gordon followed Shipley’s lead-clinching shot with perhaps an equally important play.
The Matadors, only down by one point at the time, still had a chance to win with less than ten seconds left on the clock. Gordon drew a charge and gave Cal Poly possession of the ball. On the following inbounds play, senior guard Kyle Odister was fouled then sank a free throw, sealing the game.
“The greatest part is we don’t have a senior and freshman,” head coach Joe Callero said. “We have a team. We have Mustangs. We just expect someone to step up and make plays. The maturity and growth they have is proved by faith in one another.”
No. 7 Cal Poly is the lowest-seeded team to ever win the the Big West Conference Tournament. Their 18 total turnovers helped lead them to tournament upsets against No. 2 UC Santa Barbara on Thursday and No. 1 UC Irvine on Friday.
The Mustangs will learn who they play in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, though a play-in-game in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday or Wednesday is likely.
For a team that finished 6-10 in regular season conference play, Cal Poly has been through plenty of emotional ups and downs, Eversley said, but it’s Cal Poly’s mental stamina and close-knit brotherhood that’s punched the Mustangs’ ticket to the big dance.
“Every family gets together,” Eversley said. “Their not supposed to get together just on family gatherings like holidays. They’re together on funerals too. Even in the dark times, we’ve had each others’ backs. No matter what, I know I can count on every one of these guys whether it’s on the court or off the court.”