Joseph Pack and Erik Chu
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Despite 11 3-pointers and three players scoring in double figures, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team (10-11, 3-6 Big West Conference) lost its third consecutive conference game with a 59-56 defeat at home to Hawaii (16-8, 4-4).
In desperate need to climb out of the bottom of the Big West, the Mustangs needed to protect their home court against the Rainbow Warriors.
However, the Mustangs lacked the focus and intensity needed to defeat a talented Hawaii squad that had defeated nationally ranked teams earlier in the season.
Offensively, the Mustangs struggled to adapt to the Rainbow Warriors’ defensive pressure. The long and athletic Rainbow Warriors implemented a full-court 2-2-1 zone press.
The pressure threw the Mustangs’ offensive rhythm off and caused multiple turnovers.
A key turnover by sophomore guard Ridge Shipley in the open court led to a monster dunk from Hawaii guard Aaron Valdes off a perfect lob thrown by junior guard Roderick Bobbitt.
“Hawaii does a really good job of pressuring,” junior guard Reese Morgan said. “That’s how they like to play. It got us sped up at times. There were a lot of mistakes that we could have eliminated if we had been stronger with the ball, but if we see them again, we’ll be better prepared for that.”
Through the first four and a half minutes of the game, the Mustangs failed to score a single point and finally got on the scoreboard when Morgan nailed a contested 3-pointer on the left wing.
Morgan continues to have an excellent season for the Mustangs. He tied his season high with 16 points on 3-for-5 shooting from downtown.
The slow start by the Mustangs could have been worse — the Mustangs only trailed 9-6 with 14:18 remaining in the first half.
The Mustangs weathered the storm and relied on their best offensive weapon, the 3-point shot, to get back into the game.
That’s when Shipley and junior forward Joel Awich caught fire from 3-point land.
Both Shipley and Awich finished the first half with three 3-pointers.
Shipley started the hot shooting display by hitting back-to-back 3s.
A desperation 3 at the top of the key as the shot clock expired and then a 3-pointer on the right wing erased the Rainbow Warriors’ early advantage and gave the Mustangs a 17-14 lead with 7:28 left in the first half.
Awich joined in on the party with consecutive 3-pointers of his own — one at the top of the key off a pick-and-pop followed by a long jumper at the wing pushed the Mustang lead to 23-20.
Awich finished the game with his second career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
The Mustangs offense was comprised completely of 3-pointers. They finished the first half 7-for-14 from deep.
The first two-point field goal of the game by the Mustangs came with 90 seconds left in the first half.
Cal Poly was awful at converting its point-blank layups. They had plenty of opportunities but simply missed them.
The Mustangs finished the game 4-for-30 from inside the 3-point arc.
Head coach Joe Callero attributes the poor shooting performance inside the key to a lack of focus and intensity in practice.
“The game felt like practice the last couple of days,” Callero said. “I sensed our team was going through the motions thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll make it in the game.’ We didn’t finish in practice well. It’s got to be a total practice approach to get a game approach.”
The key to the Mustangs’ comeback in the first half was their success on the defensive end. The Mustangs forced eight turnovers and held the Rainbow Warriors to 38 percent from the field on 9-for-24 shooting.
More importantly, the strong defense prevented the Rainbow Warriors from implementing their full-court press, which had suffocated the Mustangs earlier in the game.
Going into halftime, the Mustangs held a slim 28-26 advantage.
In the second half, the Cal Poly defense fell apart and gave up too many easy baskets.
The Mustangs failed to protect the paint as Hawaii forward Mike Thomas dominated the interior with a career night of 18 points.
Behind the emergence of Thomas, the Rainbow Warriors would retake the lead early in the second half with a 38-33 advantage with 13:12 remaining in the game.
The rest of the game would be a frantic back-and-forth shootout.
The Mustangs would respond with a 3-pointer by senior wing Michael Bolden off of a drive-and-kick pass from Shipley.
Shipley would finish the game with 12 points and six assists.
The clutch shot by Bolden gave the Mustangs a 42-38 lead with 10:03 to go in the game.
In crunch time, Hawaii’s guards took over.
Time after time, the Rainbow Warriors guards would slice through the Mustangs defense by splitting the pick-and-roll and finishing with an acrobatic layup.
Freshman guard Isaac Fleming finished the game with eight points, and Bobbitt added another five key points.
On the other hand, the Mustangs struggled down the stretch, missing their final five shots from the floor the rest of the game.
The lack of a go-to player in crunch time is obvious and concerning, but Shipley doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal.
“Whoever’s feeling their shots, whoever’s open or whoever makes the right play should be able to make the play for our team,” Shipley explained. “I feel confident in every player on our team to make the right play.”
Down three with 34 seconds remaining, the Mustangs turned to Awich, who beat his defender to the baseline and was fouled while attempting a layup.
Awich would make one out of two at the line to cut the Hawaii lead to 58-56.
A failed potential game-tying desperation 3-pointer by Shipley at the top of the key would give the Rainbow Warriors a 59-56 victory.
The third straight conference loss for the Mustangs is indication that Callero needs to change things up.
“The first thing I need to do is step away,” Callero said. “It’s important that the coach steps away sometimes, and three days without seeing gives the players time to reflect.”
Cal Poly ends its homestand with games against Cal State Northridge Thursday night and Long Beach State on Saturday.