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Despite its best offensive performance of the season, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team (10-10, 3-5 Big West Conference) gave up an early first-half lead and eventually lost 81-78 on the road in overtime to conference co-leader UC Davis (16-4, 6-1).
UC Davis entered the game undefeated at home and as the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the country.
The Aggies also have star guard Corey Hawkins, the Big West’s leading scorer with 21.2 points per game.
The Mustangs did not back down from the challenge and dominated the first half.
Junior forward Brian Bennett finished the game with a career-high 27 points. He scored the Mustangs’ first eight points of the game to help build an early 16-9 lead.
Bennett could not miss — he finished the half with 16 points.
“Just being aggressive was my mentality going into the game,” Bennett said. “I knew that I could really make a difference tonight, and my teammates did a great job of finding me in the low post.”
As a team, the Mustangs were on fire in the first half. They shot a season-high 59.3 percent in the first half on 16-for-27 shooting and also took great care of the ball, only committing two turnovers.
The Mustangs would lead by as many as 14 but would settle for a comfortable 40-30 lead going into halftime.
“That was our best half of basketball,” Callero said. “We knew that we could play inside-out with Brian being so effective. We really started the game with the focus and intensity needed.”
The Mustangs also did an excellent job of shutting down Hawkins, the Big West’s leading scorer.
Emphasizing team help defense and physical play, the Mustangs held Hawkins to a mere seven points in the first half.
However, the second half would be a much different story. The Aggies settled into an offensive rhythm and caught fire from deep.
Multiple 3-pointers by Hawkins triggered an 11-1 run for the Aggies that brought them back into the game, down only 45-43 with 16:25 remaining.
In need of a crucial basket, the Mustangs turned to Bennett in the low post once again. Bennett delivered and ended the Aggies run with a sweet turn-around jumper on the left block to give the Mustangs some breathing room with a 47-43 advantage.
Hawkins would respond with a 3-pointer — his third of the evening — to bring the Aggies within one point of the Mustangs at 52-51 with 12 minutes to go.
The rest of the game would be a frantic back-and-forth shootout.
With UC Davis trailing 65-62, Aggies senior guard Josh Ritchart hit a 3-pointer off of a pick-and-pop that tied the game at 65 with 54.6 seconds remaining.
The Mustangs had a great look to win the game in regulation.
After junior wing David Nwaba drove in and drew multiple defenders, he made the unselfish play — kicking the ball out to sophomore guard Ridge Shipley at the top of the key. The Aggies defense then rotated and Shipley swung the ball to junior forward Joel Awich.
Awich, who stood alone on the right wing, was unable to sink the potential game-winning shot.
On the very first possession of overtime, Awich redeemed himself by tipping in a missed layup. He finished the game with 10 points and five rebounds.
Defensively, the Mustangs continued to struggle defending the 3-point line.
A deep 3-pointer by Aggies senior guard Avery Johnson gave UC Davis a 72-71 lead with three minutes remaining.
Awich continued to have a strong overtime by hitting a 3-pointer at the top of the key. His clutch shot kept the Mustangs in the game only down 76-74.
Down three with 19 seconds, the Mustangs needed a three to extend the game to a potential second overtime.
Running full-speed off of a Bennett screen, Shipley ran to the right corner, pump-faked and drew the foul while attempting a 3-pointer.
With the chance to tie the game, Shipley missed the first free throw. Though he made the remaining two free throws, the Mustangs still trailed 79-78 with 5.5 seconds remaining.
Shipley finished the game with 11 points and eight assists.
Two Aggies free throws and a failed Nwaba half-court desperation shot that hit the back of the rim would seal the 81-78 victory for the Aggies.
The loss drops the Mustangs to seventh place in the Big West standings.
Despite the heart-breaking loss, the Mustangs probably played their best game all season. They shot a season-high 49 percent on 30-for-61 shooting from the field, out-rebounded the Aggies 34-29, had 13 assists and only committed eight turnovers.
“It obviously hurts right now, but when we look back at tonight’s game, we knew that we played well,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to keep on grinding. Eventually, these last-second shots are going to go in and we’re going to close these close games out.”
“If we play this well against the conference leader on the road in such a hostile environment, I’m not going to complain,” Callero concluded. “We’re going to be all right the rest of the season.”
Cal Poly opens its three-game homestand when facing Hawaii Feb. 5. at 7 p.m.