Coming off two road losses in the Bay Area last weekend, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team looked to capture an easy win over the struggling Menlo College and its 1-7 record at Mott Athletic Center on Saturday.
In a blowout performance with contributions from the entire squad, the Mustangs more than doubled the Oaks’ point tally with a 72-35 victory. Every active player on Cal Poly’s roster for Saturday’s game scored at least three points for the team. Led by junior forward Brian Bennett’s 15 points on 7-of-7 shooting, the Mustangs finished ahead of Menlo in rebounds, assists, turnovers, points off turnovers and second chance points.
“Tonight, everything just seemed to click for all of us,” Bennett said. “This week at practice we talked about crashing the boards and getting rebounds offensively and defensively. We just came out and transferred what we practiced into the game.”
Not only did the Mustangs dominate the boards on defense, allowing zero second chance points, but they tallied 25 points from offensive rebounds, completely controlling the paint on both ends of the floor.
“We knew we had a prohibitive height, size and experience advantage and we overwhelmed them on the glass that way,” head coach Joe Callero said.
Despite facing a zone defense — which Menlo likely used to combat the significant size disadvantage — the Mustangs were able to penetrate the defense for higher percentage shots and get to the line for free throws. Leading the high-energy attack was junior Joel Awich, who got to the line several times and finished the game with a season-high 13 points.
“My mentality was the same as every other night,” Awich said. “Coach has been telling me to be more aggressive and tonight the shots were actually falling. Being aggressive from the start definitely helps bring energy to the team, which allows us to pick it up on the defensive end. We are a good team like that.”
At practices leading up to Saturday’s matchup, the team addressed certain issues that could potentially occur when playing an NAIA team such as Menlo.
“We talked a lot this week about not playing the score and not playing the opponent, but playing to get better,” Callero said. “In the games that we lost on the road, it was tight but we lost control of it real quickly.”
The Mustangs honored the 1994-95 men’s basketball team at halftime — the first Division I team in school history. The ’94-’95 squad ended up with a 1-26 record but had plenty of wisdom to share with current players prior to Saturday’s matchup.
“It was important to see those guys because they were the first to really struggle, but they talked about how they persevered through a 1-26 season and we honor them for that,” Callero said. “People ask how do you honor a team that went 1-26, but I think, ‘Who better a team to honor?’ They finished the season and that perseverance reminds me of our team last year, who I don’t think many people had much faith in.”
“They had a lot of adversity coming from those losses, but they told us to just keep fighting, stay together and be strong,” Awich said. “It’s a team effort, whether you are 1-26 or 26-1, the important thing is that you stay together because we are all a family.”
The Mustangs will now spend more than a month on the road, with December contests at Santa Clara and No. 9 Gonzaga, a team undefeated on the year. Big West Conference play begins on Jan. 7 at Hawaii, and Cal Poly returns to Mott Athletics Center on Jan. 10 to face rival UC Santa Barbara.
“We know it’s going to be a long 11 days, but we are going to approach it like a business trip,”Bennet said, “because that is what we are there to do, take care of business.”