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The Cal Poly men’s basketball team may have come into Saturday afternoon’s game at UC Santa Barbara already locked into the seventh seed for the upcoming Big West Conference Tournament, but the second leg of the 2014-15 Blue-Green Rivalry was far from a tune-up game.
The Mustangs fell 61-54 in a hard-fought battle inside the Thunderdome.
“We were really trying to get this one,” junior forward Brian Bennett said after the game. “It’s a rivalry game, so we really wanted to go in there and try to split the series, and at the same time we know that every game is a chance to get better.”
Junior guard David Nwaba got things started for the Mustangs with a stop-on-a-dime jumper to open the scoring in the first half. Nwaba, who has been seeing limited action since a mononucleosis infection and a minor heart irregularity, made a return to the starting lineup and picked up his fast-paced style right where he left off.
“I felt like I was in pretty good shape compared to where I was at a week ago, but I’m just slowly getting back,” Nwaba said.
The offense struggled to get much to fall after the opening field goal from Nwaba.
The Mustangs were held to just one more field goal over the next 12 minutes, coming from senior guard Michael Bolden, who sank the game’s first 3-pointer with just over 11:30 to go in the first half to cut the Gauchos’ lead to 10-8.
The Mustangs continued to see their shots fall few and far between, though, as it would take a full three minutes before Nwaba got Cal Poly its next score on a drive in the paint, which the junior finished nicely with a floater from about five feet out to end a 4-0 run by the Gauchos.
“We needed to talk more,” Bennett said of the slow start. “More communication on offense and defense, and really we just needed to stick to our game plan and keep the ball moving because that’s how we get shots to fall.”
The slow start took its toll for the Mustangs when the Gauchos began hitting their shots with just over six minutes to play. Freshman guard Gabe Vincent sank their first 3-pointer to give UC Santa Barbara a 19-10 lead.
While the Mustangs would get into their best first-half offensive rhythm in the final minutes, the late first-half shots would only be enough to cut the deficit to 30-20.
The Gauchos out-rebounded the Mustangs on defense 16-13 in the opening half, with senior center Alan Williams racking up 11 of his game-best 19 rebounds in the first half, while Cal Poly struggled to take advantage of its opportunities, missing five of its eight free throws.
“With their size, they did a good job of locking up on defense,” Nwaba said. “I tried to just shoot a couple jumpers early and try to hopefully make it hard for them on defense, but at the same time I still knew I wanted to use my aggressiveness in getting to the basket against their defense.”
In the second half, the tide would turn.
After Junior forward Joel Awich got his fifth and sixth points with a jumper to open the half, Bennett continued his first-half scoring with a jumper of his own and again followed soon after by a 3-point play to cut the Gauchos’ lead to 32-27.
“Once we had that little dry spell (in the first), shots started to go in,” Bennett said. “After that we were able to make our run early in the second half to tie it up and take the lead, and then they pushed back with their run. It was just a game of runs, really, so we were just trying to fight back.”
With 14 minutes to play, the Mustangs got to within two after junior guard Reese Morgan sank a free throw to complete a momentum-shifting four-point play. Awich then tied the game with a jumper from the baseline to cap the early second-half flurry.
The game stayed at the pace we’re used to seeing from the Blue-Green rivalry thereafter, as the Central Coast teams traded 2-pointers the next three times down the court.
With 11:05 to go, another Bolden 3-pointer — his second of the game — once again reinstated the deadlock for the Mustangs, this time tying things up at 43. Bolden finished with nine points on three 3-pointers.
Soon after, the Mustangs finally saw their first lead since the opening minutes when a Nwaba floater off the glass proved true.
In the final four minutes, though, Cal Poly etched out just three field goals, two from Bennett and one from sophomore guard Ridge Shipley, while ceding to a 10-point finish from the Gauchos that finalized the season sweep of the Mustangs with a 64-56 win.
Bennett finished the night with 14 points and six rebounds, while Nwaba ended with 10 points and four rebounds. Awich added eight points as well as five rebounds, while Shipley and senior guard Maliik Love each had a team-best three assists.
The Mustangs will begin their defense of the Big West Tournament this Thursday, when they will likely face UC Irvine.
“We’re just trying to have the same mentality that we did last year,” Nwaba said of the upcoming tournament. “Come out strong and aggressive and play our game, but at the same time just seeing where we can go from there, but we’re really just thinking one game at a time and play our game as much as we can.”
Seeding for the tournament, which will be held at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, will be finalized this weekend.