Senior guard Lorenzo Keeler hit forward Ryan Darling under the basket with a no-look pass. With numerous UC Davis defenders around him, the senior emphatically finished with a two-handed slam. Those two points matched Darling’s point total for the 2008-09 season. Today he scored just as many points as he had all of this season.
Recording a double-double, a career-high 10 points and 12 rebounds, the walk-on helped propel the Mustangs (5-9, 2-1 Big West) to a 72 – 69 win against the Aggies (6-10, 2-2) Sunday afternoon in Mott Gym.
At one point in his Mustang career Darling was cut from the team, but this season he took back his roster spot. And with the loss of center Will Donahue, Darling has found some playing time in the Mustangs line-up.
“He is as good of an example to perseverance in sports as I have seen in 23 years of coaching,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “That’s a great story and what a great ending, I hope he realizes he can contribute on a regular basis.”
Darling shot 71 percent from the field, going 5 – 7 in the game.
“I am just very fortunate that (Callero) has kept me on the team and given me this opportunity to continue my dreams,” Darling said. “I couldn’t ask for anything else.”
Darling also recorded an aggressive block in Sunday’s contest, where he sent a shot attempt from the paint to the backcourt.
“None of it would have been possible without my teammates. I think every point that I scored came from an assist from a teammate. Every rebound even was coming from somebody boxing out, giving me am opportunity to grab (a rebound),” Darling said. “It feels great to be getting minutes and actually being a real contributor on the court during games, but whether if it’s in practice or I am sitting on the bench the whole game I am glad to add something, add value to this team.”
Keeler said that the performance from Darling was no surprise.
“What people don’t know is that at practice he does that every day,” Keeler said. “He hustles, he’s jumping, he’s blocking shot, he’s dunking it, we know what he can do. He earned it. He earned every bit of it.”
Darling was not the only bench player to contribute with an impressive performance; guard Justin Brown and forward David Hanson also recoded double-figure point totals off the bench along as well.
“It’s a team,” Callero said. “Lorenzo Keeler is scoring for us, Shawn Lewis is rebounding, defending and being a steady force for us out there, the point guards are interchanging whichever one is playing their best and we are getting bench contributions … that’s what makes basketball fun, it’s a team. You have to have someone step up and help you out.”
Brown finished the game with 12 points and Hanson added 16.
Compared to UC Davis, Cal Poly came out of the gates cold. The Mustangs had a 40 field goal percentage, while Davis shot a red-hot 74 percent. But the game became a tale of two halves, as the Mustangs shot 64 percent from the field compared to UC Davis who shot 37 percent from the floor in the second half.
Callero said there was no new scheme implemented at halftime.
“We just decided we wanted to stick with the game plan,” Callero said. “The game plan was kind of a defensive-oriented game plan; it was keeping our press on them, so that we could be aggressive. When you play aggressive defensively it allows you to flow and be more aggressive offensively.”
Heading out of halftime, the Mustangs trailed 35 – 28 and started the second half with back-to-back turnovers to watch the deficit grow to nine. Cal Poly rallied back to gain a lead of as much as seven, but the Aggies did not give up, as they cut the lead to three with 0.9 seconds left on the clock. UC Davis tried one last full-court desperation heave within the final second, but the shot attempt missed wide to send the Aggies home with their second conference loss of the season.
Callero was happy with his team’s performance in their second conference win of the season.
“The fact that we have grinded it out and kept on improving, our whole theme is that there is not limit to improvement, we improved tonight,” Callero said. “Our energy and our enthusiasm and our belief that we can come back and win any game was key today.”
Keeler, the leading scorer for the Mustangs, finished with 22 points on the night. He came out 7-12 from the field and 2-4 from behind the three-point line.
“Every night I come out and try to leave it all out on the court,” Keeler said. “It’s all mental with me. I know I can shoot the ball extremely well, I just got stay confident, come out aggressive and I’ll be alright.”
Junior Shaun Lewis finished with seven points and only one missed shot in the contest. He finished 3-4 from the field and 1-1 from long range.
The Mustangs look to keep their momentum going as they travel to Cal State Fullerton Thursday night.
“Getting a W is the most important part of (conference play)” Callero said. “The bottom line is win the game right now, then go back to film and learn a little bit more.”