Credit: Owen Roberts | Mustang News, 2023

Despite a very hard-fought battle, Cal Poly Men’s Basketball opened their two-game road trip with a 55-54 loss to UC Irvine on Thursday, Feb. 9 at the Bren Events Center.

The loss extended the Mustangs’ (7-18, 1-12 Big West) losing streak to 12, while the Highlanders (16-8, 9-3 Big West) got themselves back in the win column, continuing their solid play this season.

From the opening tip-off, it was apparent that a win for the Mustangs would require facing a little adversity. And, early in the first half, it seemed as though they’d be more than capable. 

After quickly falling behind 4-0 and missing their first six shots, the Green and Gold managed to get themselves on the scoreboard with 16:21 to go in the half thanks to a three-pointer from junior guard Brantly Stevenson. The Mustangs both took the lead and control of the game temporarily, going on a 9-2 run over the next 3:20 of play. 

While there would be other opportunities throughout the night, that six-point lead was the largest they’d have all night. It was also almost immediately erased, as the Anteaters proceeded to go on a 14-0 run, giving them the 20-12 lead with 7:24 to go in the opening half.

Again, however, it seemed as though the Mustangs would overcome the adversity they were facing — this time defensively, as they closed out the half allowing just eight points and only two field goals over the final seven minutes. 

With just over seven minutes left in the half, junior guard Camren Pierce snapped what had become a five-minute scoring drought for Cal Poly with a three-pointer to cut the lead to five. 

From there, the Mustangs kept UC Irvine to just one field goal inside the final six minutes of the half, and graduate guard Nick Fleming sank a three with four seconds remaining to tie the game at 28 and send the Mustangs into the break with the apparent momentum.

In reality, it was the evening’s hosts who carried all the momentum to start the final 20 minutes, as UCI quickly rattled off a 10-2 run during the first four minutes of the half to give themselves a 38-30 lead. 

From there, the game suddenly shifted into a back-and-forth fight, with the Mustangs managing to keep themselves in it at seemingly every turn. Kickstarted by a layup from graduate guard Chance Hunter with just inside 16 minutes to play, Cal Poly went on a 12-0 run.

In that run, Hunter picked up two more buckets along with a three from Fleming and a layup from senior guard Trevon Taylor with 11:53 to go, giving the Mustangs the four-point lead at 42-38.

The defenses made themselves known from that point on, and the game became a question of who was going to give out first. 

The answer wasn’t revealed until the final two minutes of the contest, as neither side led by more than four points for the next 10 minutes until Anteaters sophomore center Bent Leuchten handed his squad a 55-50 lead via a three with 1:37 to play. 

However, for those in attendance on Thursday night, it was the final stretch that the two teams had saved their best. 

Following Leuchten’s three, the Mustangs held UCI scoreless the rest of the way, but couldn’t close the gap quite enough. After two free throws from Taylor and a layup from Stevenson made it a one-point game with 56 seconds left, the Green and Gold simply had nothing left in the tank. 

After a missed jumper from the home squad with just 10 seconds left, it looked as though Cal Poly would have a chance to snap their losing streak, but after missing two jumpers in those final seconds, the horn sounded, and with it, the 55-54 defeat was made official.

Statistically, Hunter led the way with 13 points to go along with six rebounds while Stevenson added 12 points and eight rebounds of his own. 

Cal Poly will look to get back in the win column—and sweep the season series—when they visit CSU Northridge on Saturday, Feb. 11 at 1 p.m. inside the Premier America Credit Union Arena.