Head coach Joe Callero knows momentum is everything going into the Big West Conference Tournament. The Cal Poly men’s basketball team secured a No. 4 seed heading into this week’s tournament with a 67-38 rout of Pacific in Mott Gym on Saturday, the team’s second double-digit win in as many games.
“The momentum of winning two at home is a springboard,” Callero said. “Everybody is a little bit happier. It gives you energy, and it’s March, and we feel like it’s a special time for us now.”
With the victory in the regular season finale, the Mustangs will face fifth-seeded UC Riverside in the opening round Thursday night at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
The Mustangs (17-14, 8-8 BWC) are guaranteed an overall winning record and look to beat a program record of 19 wins in a season, set by the 2006-07 squad that went 19-11 and lost in the conference finals to Long Beach State. Cal Poly has never been to the NCAA Tournament while a Division I program.
For senior David Hanson, the romp over Pacific (11-18, 6-10 BWC) had an extra bit of incentive — it marked the final time he, along with five other seniors, would play in Mott Gym.
“It was kind of bittersweet,” Hanson said. “I wish I could still play, but my four years here have been fantastic. The fans have been great, the community and everyone supported us and myself especially. I’ve been so blessed, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The Mustangs got on the board first with an opening possession layup by senior Will Taylor followed by a 3-pointer from senior walk-on guard Matt Titchenal — starting for the first time in his collegiate career — to give Cal Poly a 5-2 early lead with 17:17 to go in the half.
The Tigers would gain the lead on a layup by sophomore center Khalil Kelley with 16:01 remaining and extended their largest lead of the night to five at the 12:21 mark.
The Mustangs chipped away at the early lead throughout the next couple of minutes and regained the advantage on a 3-pointer by sophomore forward Chris Eversley with nine minutes remaining in the first.
Eversley — a transfer from Rice University — was recently moved to the sixth-man role by Callero prior to the two-game winning streak in hopes of igniting offensive production off the bench.
The Chicago native has done just that, scoring double-digits in 12 of the program’s 16 previous games, a stretch in which he’s proved to be the team’s leading scorer. He finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds against the Tigers on Saturday.
“I’m more confident now than I’ve ever been,” Eversley said. “My teammates have my back no matter what, and I really love them for that. We’re a big happy family and even through the tough times when I know we had our struggles, we’re still here, and I’m happy we were able to send the seniors off tonight.”
Following a turnover by Pacific’s guard Lorenzo McCloud with eight seconds left in the half, senior point guard Amaurys Fermin gave the Mustangs a 33-24 lead at the other end on a runner that banked in as time expired in the period.
Cal Poly picked up right where it left off in the second half as Fermin extended the lead to 15, courtesy of another layup with 14:39 to go in the contest.
The Mustangs would never look back as they went on a 12-0 run midway through the half, giving them the largest lead of the night to that point at 25.
The Mustangs held Pacific to just 18-percent shooting from the field in the second half, including an 0-for-11 figure from beyond the arc. The Tigers would tally a mere 14 points in the period — the lowest point total allowed by Cal Poly in a single half this year.
The Mustangs put an emphasis on hard-nosed defense and getting back to playing “Cal Poly basketball,” according to Callero.
“Tonight, a casual basketball fan could have looked at the game and said (Pacific) didn’t have very many chances to score,” he said. “From my determination … the two things that I think are great indicators (of the defense) from tonight are the fact that (Pacific) was 2-for-19 from the 3-point line and 0-for-11 (in the second half).”
While the Big West tournament will be played at a neutral site, the Mustangs have struggled away from home going 5-10 on the road this season.
The Mustangs will need to win three straight games in the tournament to be crowned conference champions and earn an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.