Sophomore forward Chris Eversley notched his first career double-double with 11 points and a career-high 14 rebounds as Cal Poly overcame a late rally to beat UC Riverside 54-52.
Eversley also defended the Big West’s second-leading scorer, Phil Martin, and his potential game-winning 3-point shot as time expired.
“(Head) coach Callero always tells me, ‘play defense; be big; use what you have,’” he said. “I’m starting to get a feel for my body more, so I think that’s helping me understand the game.”
Senior forward Will Taylor also dominated down low near the basket, adding nine rebounds and a team-high13 points on 6 of 9 shooting.
The Mustangs picked up their defensive intensity after a sloppy first half by both teams, leading by as many as 14 points midway through the second half.
With six minutes to play, a 3-pointer by junior guard Dylan Royer put the Mustangs up by 10 but the Highlanders fought back behind Martin, whose tip-in slashed the lead to two with 37 seconds remaining.
After being fouled, sophomore guard Jamal Johnson missed the first free throw in a one-and-one opportunity, giving UC Riverside one last shot and a chance to win the game.
Martin dribbled just beyond the 3-point line waiting for his buzzer-beating opportunity as seconds ticked off the game clock. Eversley stepped out to avoid a Highlander screen and smothered Martin, whose final shot was an airball.
Eversley gave all of the credit to his teammates, his coaches and, especially, the fans.
“There’s no place like Mott Gym,” he said. “I think we have the best fans in America.”
Martin led all scorers with 22 points, which is slightly more than the 17.6 points per game he is averaging this season.
A crowd of 2,012 filled the bleachers to watch Cal Poly play its first home game since Jan. 21, when the team scored 100 points and tied an all-time NCAA record with 11 consecutive 3-pointers made against Cal State Northridge.
The story was quite different against the Highlanders as the Mustangs shot 4 of 20 from behind the arc including 10 attempts by Royer, who made three and finished with nine points.
The low-scoring game kept fans in their seats for most of the contest, but according to Taylor, it was a classic example of Cal Poly basketball.
“It’s not going to be pretty anymore,” he said. “We have to make the games dirty and ugly; that’s how we win. It feels so much better to be home; this is our backyard. Win, lose or draw, we’re loved here.”
Head coach Joe Callero was satisfactied with the win too, but said his team must dedicate themselves daily to growth between now and the Big West Conference Championships in Anaheim, Calif., next month.
“We’re still an emerging team,” he said. “I don’t think we’re close to playing our best basketball yet.”
Callero said he feels a sense of urgency growing among his players and staff as the regular season nears an end.
With the win, Cal Poly improves to 5-6 in conference play, moving into a tie with UC Riverside, UC Irvine and Pacific for fourth place. The Mustangs split the season series with the Highlanders after losing 60-53 on the road last month.
UC Riverside travels to UC Santa Barbara, where they will play the Gauchos (7-3) on Saturday night.
Cal Poly hosts UC Irvine on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Mustangs beat the Anteaters in January, one of two teams Cal Poly beat on the road earlier this season.