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A season ago, a No. 7 seeded Cal Poly men’s basketball team defeated UC Santa Barbara in the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament, propelling the Mustangs to the semifinals, a tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.
The stage was set for a repeat of 2014 — No. 7 seed, 6-10 in conference play, facing the Gauchos in the first round — but Cal Poly could not repeat the dream sequence, falling 54-50 in a close contest.
The first 10 minutes were sloppy by both teams. The Mustangs were only able to muster five points in that span, but tough defense held the Gauchos to just 11 points.
UC Santa Barbara’s senior forward Alan Williams, an All-Big West Conference first team selection, dominated the first half. Williams dropped in 13 of the Gauchos’ 27 points, taking the No. 2 seed into the locker room with a 27-22 lead.
Cal Poly was shaky at best in the first 20 minutes, shooting 29.6 percent from the floor versus UC Santa Barbara’s 44.4 percent mark, but were lucky to be down by just five.
“We went into halftime and realized we had held them to 27 points,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “(It) felt like if we could hold them to 27 again, keep them under 30, we could grind and create opportunities to get it back down to a two-point game.”
Post-halftime, Callero had the Mustangs looking like last year’s squad.
Senior guard Maliik Love and junior forward Brian Bennett took over the game.
Bennett embodied the All-Big West Conference second team accolades awarded to him earlier in the week, taking on Williams in the post and, frankly, outplaying the Gauchos’ star. Bennett went off with a game-high 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
“My shots were going in early,” Bennett said. “I was just in the flow of the game.”
Love, not usually the most potent offensive weapon, came alive in his final game in a Cal Poly uniform. Love ended his collegiate career swinging, ending with the solid stat-line of 10 points, five rebounds and four assists.
“Maliik Love … just completely what we want at Cal Poly,” Callero said. “The toughness and dedication.”
Cal Poly kept the Gauchos within striking range, slowly reeling them in throughout the half.
Callero caught UC Santa Barbara off guard with 12:50 to play, implementing a full-court press that immediately yielded two steals.
“I thought we could change the tempo, energize the team a little bit,” Callero said. “We experimented with it a little bit at their place, we were hoping that we might generate some offense.”
After 10 minutes of trailing by a handful points, a jumper by Bennett with 1:57 to go brought the Mustangs within two, trailing 52-50.
The last two minutes were chaotic. Williams stole the ball from sophomore guard Ridge Shipley with 1:16 left, but his errant outlet pass game the ball immediately back to Cal Poly, who subsequently missed multiple game-tying jumpers.
Ultimately, it came down to a single play.
Shipley, the hero from a year ago in the Big West Tournament Championship, drove to the hoop with :11 left. The brief opening was quickly shut down by UC Santa Barbara’s guard Michael Bryson, who made a huge block, preventing Shipley from repeating his heroics, and alleviating any pending deja vu.
“I think it’s similar to last year, as the No.7 seed, we weren’t surprised that we won,” Callero said. “And as the No. 7 seed, we weren’t surprised that we lost.”
The loss also marked the final Cal Poly game for senior forwards Anthony Silvestri and Alberto Ganis, along with senior guard Michael Bolden.
The Gauchos will now face No. 3 seed UC Irvine in the semifinals at 9 p.m. on Friday. No. 1 UC Davis squares off with No. 5 Hawaii at 6 p.m.
“It doesn’t add to the disappointment because it was Santa Barbara,” Callero said. “It didn’t add to the sweetness last year that we beat Santa Barbara. It’s just like, ‘Wow. We made a great run last year.’”