“UC Irvine is the sweep we should have had,” senior forward Ryan Darling said. “It’s time to finish the house cleaning.”
In the Mustangs’ first game of the Big West Tournament today, Cal Poly will square off against UC Irvine, a team that defeated them 91-84 in overtime less than a week ago.
In last Saturday’s game, the Anteaters sank four three-pointers in the final 38 seconds of the game, including the game-tying three with less than a second to go. Sophomore forward David Hanson feels that the tough loss will provide motivation for their rematch on Wednesday at the Anaheim Convention Center.
“They got us here at our place and made a comeback in a game that we kind of held the lead the whole time, now we get to play them again and we’re probably going to be more hungry,” Hanson said.
In last weekend’s game both Cal Poly and UC Irvine had four players each score in double figures. Shawn Lewis led all scorers with 26 and added 10 rebounds. First team all-conference guard, Lorenzo Keeler, scored 21 points in his last game at Mott Gym.
Callero hopes his team can repeat that type of effort because he felt like his team was in control for a majority of the game.
“We feel confident as a team that we can play with anybody in the Big West,” he said. “We’re playing our best basketball of the year.”
He said not much would change in terms of preparation from last weekend as he pointed out that the Mustangs were either ahead or tied for all of but 50 seconds of regulation. It wasn’t until overtime that the Anteaters took the lead for good. He also added that facing the same opponent back-to-back gives the team an advantage because they don’t have to spend as much time scouting their first round opponent as they normally would.
If anything is going to change in the strategy from last week, Callero said the Mustangs might not focus so much of their defensive attention on Michael Hunter and Eric Wise. Those players were held to 19 and 17 points respectively, while two other Irvine players were able to score in the twenties.
Callero said he feels confident because, with the exception of Pacific, every team they could face before the finals they have beaten at least once this season.
This season the Mustangs have exceeded expectations. In multiple pre-season polls, Cal Poly was projected to finish last in the Big West. At the end of the regular season, the Mustangs have four more wins than last season’s win total.
Standing at No. 6, Cal Poly will have the longest road of any team to the tournament championship. Hanson knows that this team can compete with anyone in the conference but it will take a special effort to win four games in a row.
“The games are so mentally, emotionally and physically draining, that it’s going to take every single guy on this team to win all four games,” Hanson said. “Those are four games we know we can win. We obviously have to play well and shoot the ball well. We’re very close, we are right there and we know we can take any of these teams.”
The lowest seed that advances from the first round will take on No. 3 seed Long Beach State Thursday. The higher advancing seed will take on No. 4 seed UC Davis. Cal Poly split the season series with both potential opponents, winning at Long Beach State and at home against Davis.
If the Mustangs make it past the second round they will face one of the top two teams in conference, Pacific or Santa Barbara in the semifinals. Pacific swept the season series against the Mustangs winning both games by a combined total of 16 points. Cal Poly split with rival Santa Barbara as the home team won both games.
If Cal Poly can piece together four wins, the Mustangs will find themselves at the stoop of the NCAA tournament. For seniors Keeler, Darling and Charles Anderson, it would be the culmination of a long journey and an experience that would be tough to put into words.
“It’d be a dream come true,” Darling said. “Words can’t explain how important that would be to me. It would be amazing and that’s all that I’m focused on.”