Shot by shot, foul by foul and minute by minute, the game began to go the underdog’s way.
And when Luke Nelson’s potential game-tying 3-pointer found only air, it was official. Cal Poly had stunned the top-seeded UC Irvine Anteaters and punched its first ticket to the Big West Tournament finals since 2007 with a 61-58 victory.
As UC Irvine’s improbably high shooting percentage dwindled, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team capitalized on every opportunity, never allowing the Anteaters to lead in the second half with key stops and clutch shots.
“The greatest part about the game was we answered the bell each time,” head coach Joe Callero said.
The Mustangs — now one victory away from an NCAA Tournament bid — had a solution for every obstacle in their way.
That started with the Anteaters’ center Mamadou Ndiaye. It was the third time this season Cal Poly got a taste of Ndiaye, and sophomore forward Brian Bennett was able to drop a series of mid-range shots over the center’s 7-foot-6 frame.
“The first time you’re like kind of feeling it out, the second time you have a better feel for him, and then this third time, we were just going out there and playing another guy,” Bennett said. “It didn’t matter how tall he was. We just attacked and kept attacking and it worked out for us.”
UC Irvine didn’t hand out many opportunities in the first half. The Anteaters posted a 52.4 shooting percentage and sank four of five 3-pointers.
But Cal Poly’s aggressive defense ended up being the difference maker, as the Mustangs scraped 16 points off of 12 turnovers on the night. Bennett, who scored 12 points, also notched a team-best nine rebounds.
Senior forward Chris Eversley and sophomore guard Dave Nwaba led Cal Poly with 14 points apiece.
“This season, we’ve been through a lot,” Eversley said. “Nobody on this team has quit, mentally and emotionally.”
Cal Poly — the No. 7 seed — also had the odds stacked against them Friday night, as the Mustangs faced the No. 1 seed in UC Irvine, a team that took two games from Cal Poly during the regular season.
“When you lose to a team twice, you go to sleep thinking about that,” Eversley said. “Just being in the depths, when we were losing games and these guys not quitting on each other, it just shows testaments to the mental endurance that we have and it’s why we’re in the position that we’re in right now.”
Having defeated No. 2 UC Santa Barbara on Thursday, Cal Poly has compiled upsets on back-to-back nights, and did so in part by giving up just 11 turnovers in both games combined.
“Our motto right now is let’s not be lucky, let’s just be good,” Callero said. “We don’t want good luck, we want good execution.”
Lucky or not, UC Irvine’s 3-pointers started to rim out, as the Anteaters sank 1 of 9 from long range in the second half. But, the Mustangs couldn’t seal the deal until the clock officially ran out.
“It was the best game I’ve ever played in because of the emotional swings,” Eversley said. “Those last four minutes after that last media timeout seemed like an eternity. Neither team was going to give up.”
Cal Poly is the lowest seed to reach the Big West Tournament finals since 1994 and the second No. 7 seed in tournament history to reach the championship game.
The Mustangs will face either Cal State Northridge or Long Beach State in the championship game at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.
“These guys have heart and mental stamina,” Eversley said. “Nobody on this team is going to quit until we play our last game in this jersey.”