Brian Bennett scored six points in the Mustangs' loss to Pacific in the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament. Photo by Ian Billings
Brian Bennett scored six points in the Mustangs’ loss to Pacific in the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament. Photo by Ian Billings
Brian Bennett scored six points in the Mustangs’ loss to Pacific in the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament. Photo by Ian Billings

Stephan Teodosescu

In a game that featured 18 lead changes and didn’t see either team lead by more than four points, a single put-back layup with 1.3 seconds left decided the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s fate for a bid at the Big West Conference Tournament finals.

Pacific’s senior forward Travis Fulton corralled teammate Lorenzo McCloud’s missed baseline jumper and, along with the Mustangs’ tournament hopes, drained the second opportunity to end Cal Poly’s season with a 55-53 loss in the semifinal round.

“In a game that’s 39 minutes long or maybe 41 minutes long, maybe we get it,” Callero said. “But it’s a 40 minute game and that last possession, that last bounce and that last tip-in goes to them.”

A seesaw battle from the opening tip, the Mustangs (18-13) couldn’t take advantage of the back-and-forth nature of the game dropping their first contest in their last seven outings and, for the second straight year, packed their bags early after losing a second round game in the Big West tournament.

The matchup featured the conference’s top two defensive teams entering the tournament, so the slugfest was expected, but the outcome wasn’t — at least not for Cal Poly. A defensive-minded team since Callero arrived on campus four years ago, the Mustangs rely heavily on their ability to play stingy D.

“That’s been us for four years,” Callero said of the team’s defensive approach. “We’re not a high octane team. We’re a controlling, defensive, rebounding, execution team and its worked very well for us.”

But Friday night just came down to one final possession. And despite the slow-paced, grind-it-out style game that usually works to Cal Poly’s advantage, the Mustangs couldn’t match Pacific’s final shot.

“We were definitely confident in our defensive abilities that last possession,” senior guard Dylan Royer said. “But (Fulton) made a great play. It was great defense on the first shot and Fulton made a great falling-down play. Got to give credit to him.”

The game was Royer’s last in a Cal Poly uniform as he, along with senior guards Chris O’Brien and Drake U’u, will graduate this year. O’Brien finished with 11 points and grabbed five rebounds in one of the best tournament performances of his career.

After junior forward Chris Eversley turned in a quiet night against UC Davis in the opening round of the tournament, the All-Big West first team honoree scored a team-high 12 points in the loss. He’ll remember the loss of the seniors most, though.

“It’s kind of like what we went through last year losing the six seniors that we had,” Eversley said. “It hurts, but we also realize they we have to take to heart the fact that we had a lot of great memories this season.”

With 1:26 to go, Eversley, playing with what Callero called a “swollen throat” finessed a long 2-pointer into the bucket to knot the score at 51 before O’Brien sunk two free throws off a foul by Pacific’s Tony Gill.

McCloud, the Tigers’ leading scorer entering the tournament, hit the game-tying layup with 50 seconds remaining before the Mustangs called timeout with 44 ticks left. Cal Poly held the ball on its ensuing possession pausing for a Royer 3-pointer that clanked out with 27 seconds left giving Pacific enough time to run out the clock with one final possession.

“I think the NBA mentality there makes you force (a shot) a little bit too quick and the other team can get an (defensive) board,” Callero said of his decision to forego a 2-for-1 opportunity out of the last timeout . “You’re not sure you’re going to get a quality (shot). At the college level, the best shot is critical.”

The Mustangs had trouble defending Gill off the bench, who averaged 6.6 points per game entering Friday’s game. He hit several clutch 3-pointers down the stretch going 4-of-4 from downtown and finished with a team-high 20 points.

Cal Poly was looking to advance to the Big West tournament finals for just the third time in program history.  The Mustangs have never made it to the NCAA Tournament.

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