Up by just one at halftime, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team found it difficult to find its rhythm in the first period of its Big West Conference Tournament opening round game against UC Davis.
Scoring just 20 points on 7-of-25 shooting in the first 20 minutes, Cal Poly looked to find a spark offensively in the second half.
It came in the form of senior guards Drake U’u and Dylan Royer.
On the Mustangs’ first three possessions of the second half, U’u scored six straight points while Royer knocked down three 3-pointers in the final period to incite a rally that helped No. 3 Cal Poly distance itself from the No. 6-ranked Aggies in a 64-41 victory inside the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. on Thursday.
“One of the things I really wanted to do in the second half was really push it in transition a little more,” U’u said. “We flow a lot better offensively when we push the ball up the court and I really wanted to set the tone for the team coming out in the second half.”
Cal Poly advances to Friday night’s semifinal game starting at 9 p.m. with the win. It marks only the second time in school history that the Mustangs will move on to the second round of the Big West tournament in consecutive years.
Royer finished the game with a game-high 17 points after going 5-for-5 from downtown in one of the finest tournament games of his five-year career.
“The win is what feels the best,” Royer said. “To shoot well and to win is good and going forward hopefully we can get a win tomorrow.”
The Mustangs held the conference’s most potent offense in terms of field goal percentage to just 36.4 percent shooting from the floor while holding Big West-leading scorer Corey Hawkins to six points on the night, including just one point in the first half, a lone free throw hit with five seconds left in the period.
Cal Poly also broke a record in holding the Aggies to just 41 points — the lowest total for a Mustangs opponent this year. It was the defensive effort in the second half that impressed head coach Joe Callero the most, he said.
“The lid finally came off, you can tell by the way we flowed a little bit,” Callero said. “But what I’m most proud about the game (is) that we sustained our defensive game focus and game plan.”
Both teams started the game off slow, combining for just 20 points in the opening 13:33 of play. UC Davis got off to a 5-0 early lead, but the Mustangs countered with a 10-0 run the next 5:37 before the teams traded baskets the rest of the half.
U’u helped lead the charge early in the second as the Mustangs opened on an 11-0 run capped off by two technical foul free throws from Royer.
The former walk-on hit another 3-pointer with 12:50 to go, extending Cal Poly’s lead to 12. That was before the Mustangs got really hot. Four minutes later, redshirt freshman Reese Morgan widened the advantage to 21 after converting a four-point play on a foul from beyond the arc.
Royer gave the Mustangs their largest lead, hitting his fifth 3-pointer with 25 ticks left to go in the game.
While the win moves Cal Poly forward in the tournament, the Mustangs won’t celebrate just yet. They will face Pacific at 9 p.m. on Friday.
“You can’t play on Saturday (in the tournament finals) if you don’t take care of business on Thursday,” Callero said. “So today was taking care of some business and tomorrow’s about the opportunity to play on Saturday … We’re loose, we’re focused, we’re having fun, but there’s higher expectations.”
Cal Poly’s leading scorer and rebounder, junior forward Chris Eversley, was held to just seven points and six boards on the night.
With the help of his second half outburst, U’u finished with 10 points and true freshman center Brian Bennett added eight.
Sophomore forward J.T. Adenrele led the Aggies with eight points.