How did I end up here — on a bus traveling the godforesaken highways between Chicago and Cleveland — and why? And how did Cal Poly end up here — on a collision course for No. 1 seeded Wichita State on Friday — and why?
I’ve been asking myself those questions a lot over the past four days. Well, at least I think it’s four days.
But had you told me last Thursday that I’d be making my way to Dayton, Ohio, I would have either said you were smoking stronger stuff than Rob Ford or a nuclear bomb wiped out the entire West Coast and I’d somehow made it out safely.
And I’d have been wrong. So, how did I get here?
Let’s start from the beginning.
Making the yearly trek down to Anaheim for the Big West Conference Tournament has been somewhat of a pilgrimage and an exercise in frustration for a generation of Mustang News/Daily sportswriters. There was always a lingering hope that the Mustangs would break the glass ceiling and win those three tournament games.
Too often, those hopes were dashed. The two previous years I was in attendance, the Mustangs were one of the top four seeds and easily dispatched their opponents in the quarterfinals, then proceeded to drop their next game.
But this year, there wasn’t too much hope that the seventh-seeded Cal Poly men’s team would make a Cinderella run. In fact, the more interesting storyline looked like the women’s team and its chance to repeat as champion in the final year of the “big three:” Molly Schlemer, Jonae Ervin and Ariana Elegado.
The men’s team had been acting like the walking dead for a month. Tons of talent, we thought, but it just hadn’t congealed. The sportswriters who made the trip to Anaheim joked that — should the men make the final — we’d all go buy bow ties and wear them on press row. More on that later.
So we sat down for the Mustangs’ first game against the Gauchos and all was going according to schedule as UC Santa Barbara jumped up 7-0 to start the game. I leaned over to fellow writer Jacob Lauing and said, “Here we go again.”
I was wrong again. Dead wrong. By halftime, David Nwaba looked like he had lit a fire under the Mustangs and the Gauchos were shell-shocked, trailing by 21. In fact, had Cal Poly not scored a bucket in the second half, they still would have won.
So by Thursday night, there were glimmers of more to come, but UC Irvine’s 7-foot-6 (no, that is not a typo) center Mamadou Ndiaye literally stood in the way of a Cinderella run — at least, until he didn’t. For Cal Poly, the 2013-14 season seemed to be defined by not being able to score in the paint. They weren’t aggressive, and when they were, big centers like Ndiaye swatted their shots away like gnats.
So the Mustangs did the only logical thing. If they weren’t going to go through Ndiaye, they went over him.
Joel Awich lobbed a couple over the center and Nwaba started faking a drive to the baseline — his signature move — and instead bouncing out to the free throw line and putting a tear drop shot over Ndiaye.
Suddenly Ndiaye was a downright liability, especially for the Anteaters offense. Sensing Cal Poly’s gameplan, UC Irvine pulled Ndiaye in favor of smaller centers, but by that time Cal Poly got its outside game working and the Anteaters couldn’t overcome a halftime deficit.
Bow ties it was. A deal was a deal.
From press row, the final was mostly a blur. I remember Cal Poly trailing by 11 in the first half, then cutting the lead down by half time, eventually taking the lead early in the second half. What I do remember vividly was “the shot,” as I’m sure it will be called for years.
The play unfolded right in front of me, and to be honest, it looked like a disaster until the final moment. Zach Gordon, who was having a breakout tournament, received the ball at the free throw line and pump faked a potential game-tying shot with about 25 seconds left. I bit on the fake, thinking that was the exact shot Cal Poly didn’t want.
Gordon wisely drew the ball down and passed it to a cutting Eversley. The entire Anteater defense collapsed around the Mustangs’ key threat and as Eversley turned, I thought again Cal Poly was going to lob up a midrange fadeaway jumper — not the high-percentage shot they’d want. Again, I was wrong.
Instead of going to the hoop, Eversley — and I only saw this on review — faked a pass to literally no one on the far wing. It stalled the Cal State Northridge defender enough to allow Ridge Shipley to flash open. And, well, the rest is history.
For the next few hours, the sports team scrambled to 1) finish the game story 2) find other story lines in the form of Shipley’s background and head coach Joe Callero’s weirdness and 3) briefly contemplate traveling to “Dayton freaking Ohio,” as we put it.
By 12:30 a.m. Sunday morning, we exited the Honda Center for the final time. By 5 a.m. we were back in San Luis Obispo. Around 3:15 p.m., Cal Poly found out it would play in Dayton on Wednesday. By 8 p.m., I published the story on Shipley’s shot. At 10 p.m., I booked a plane ticket to Chicago.
On Monday morning, I hurriedly finished my senior project and sent it to my professor by noon. At 5 p.m. I was on a plane to the Windy City.
By 1 a.m. Eastern Time I was sitting down for beers — why not, it was St. Patty’s Day — with last year’s editor-in-chief, Brian De Los Santos. At 2 p.m., I boarded a bus bound for a friend’s house in Cleveland.
So I guess that’s how I found myself on that lost stretch of asphalt. And part of the reason why Cal Poly is on track to face down one of the best teams in the nation tomorrow night.