It was an all too familiar feeling for the Cal Poly men’s basketball team Thursday night. Throughout the year, the Mustangs suffered some gut-wrenching losses.
Add another one to the list.
In perhaps the most painful one of all, Cal Poly fell to UC Riverside 70-66 in overtime of the Big West Tournament quarterfinals at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The loss ended the Mustangs’ season with an even 15-15 record, while the Highlanders improved to 12-19 and will face top-seeded Long Beach State in the semifinals tomorrow night.
Despite the setback, head coach Joe Callero was proud of the way his team fought back all night long.
“The thing I love about this team, to play off recent headlines, there’s no crying in our locker room,” Callero said. “I don’t say that as an insult to anybody, it’s because they played their butts off.”
The game was a back-and-forth affair as both teams came up with big shot after big shot. Cal Poly almost won the game in regulation after junior forward David Hanson hit a 3-pointer with 29 seconds remaining, to give the Mustangs a 55-53 lead.
However, the Mustangs just couldn’t hold on, as UC Riverside’s Kareem Nitoto drove to his right and was fouled by senior guard Shawn Lewis. Nitoto converted both free throws with 4.8 seconds to tie the score at 55. Freshman Maliik Love’s desperation 3-pointer as time expired caught all glass and the game was sent to overtime.
In overtime, it was more of the same for both teams. The Mustangs kept unleashing 3-point attempts, while the Highlanders continued to attack the hoop and get to the free-throw line. For the game, the Mustangs were 13-for-36 from 3-point land, while their normally stout 3-point defense allowed the Highlanders to shoot 56.3 percent for the game (9-of-16). Also, UC Riverside held a distinct advantage at the free-throw line, converting 15-of-20 from the line, while Cal Poly only attempted four, making three of them.
Callero said his team’s defense, especially behind the arc, needed to be better.
“The one thing we hung our hat on is being able to defend that three-point line, but it was just one of those nights where I thought we defended it and they still knocked down shots,” Callero said.
As the teams traded baskets, UC Riverside was able to make one more shot than the Mustangs.
With 1:30 remaining, Javon Borum gave UC Riverside a one-point lead on his fifth 3-pointer of the night. The Mustangs answered back as former Morro Bay High School standout Dylan Royer was left all alone under the hoop. His layup with 34 seconds put Cal Poly back on top with a 66-65 lead.
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, Nitoto had one last answer again, just like he did all night. He drove along the baseline and converted a three-point play with 14.7 seconds left to give Riverside a 68-66 lead.
The Mustangs had one last shot and they went to Lewis at the top of the key hoping their lone senior could provide one last shot of magic.
Lewis slipped as he got the ball at the top of the arc and UC Riverside’s Phil Martin blocked his 3-point attempt. Daymond Cowlah iced the game with two free throws with 1.5 seconds, securing the victory for the Highlanders.
Callero said it was unfortunate that Lewis slipped and that they weren’t necessarily drawing up a play for a three.
“Were we trying to go for a three-pointer? No we, were trying to win the game,” Callero said. “Whether that was a two or three, in the game of sports people slip. It wasn’t a coaching decision or a player error, it was just a fact of life.”
On the night, the Mustangs were led by Lewis, who ended his Cal Poly career by leading the team in points (18), rebounds (8) and assists (5) for the game. Hanson contributed 16 points, and Royer provided an unexpected spark off the bench with 14 points, including 4-of-5 from 3-point land.
Even though Lewis will never suit up again for the Mustangs, he said he leaves with no regrets.
“This is a sad feeling that the season is coming to an end, ” Lewis said. “We kind of felt we could have made more noise than we did in this tournament. It’s a tough loss. We played our butts off and I don’t regret anything. If we would’ve won, I would have had the same feeling.”
Nitoto led all scorers with 23 points and Borum added 15 points for the Highlanders, which avenged two earlier losses to the Mustangs this season.
Early on, it appeared Cal Poly might cruise to another victory over UC Riverside. The Mustangs jumped on the Highlanders with aggressive drives to the basket. Following a Maliik Love layup, Cal Poly grabbed an 8-3 lead forcing UC Riverside to take a timeout less than three minutes into the game.
The timeout would prove to be beneficial for the Highlanders, who went on a 15-0 run over a four minute span, capped off by a three-pointer by Nitoto, putting Riverside up by nine at 17-8.
The Mustangs were sluggish offensively throughout the first half and struggled to find any sort of offensive rhythm or consistency. Cal Poly was held in check, shooting only 37 percent in the half on 10-for-27 shooting, including 1-of-9 from behind the arc. Meanwhile, the Highlanders shot 40 percent and were able to penetrate into the Mustangs’ defense and find some easier looks.
Part of the reason for Cal Poly’s minimal offensive output in the first half was due to the fact that Lewis and Hanson combined to shoot 3-for-15 from the floor and only six points. During the regular season, each averaged 15.1 points per game.
Coming out of the gates, Lewis and Hanson were different players. Hanson started with consecutive 3-pointers and Lewis scored 10 straight points for the Mustangs to give Cal Poly a five point lead at the 12:53 mark. It matched the largest lead the Mustangs held all night.
Unfortunately, UC Riverside was able to chip away at the Mustangs’ lead and send the game into overtime, where they eventually prevailed.
“The effort tonight, and for that matter from the start of the season, from all of us has been really good,” Hanson said. “We gave our best efforts tonight and just came up short. Tonight just wasn’t our night.”
It was a disappointing end for the Mustangs, which couldn’t find a way to put the heartbreak on someone else for a change.