Couresty Photo | Glenn Feingerts/UC Irvine Athletics

Erik Chu

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Junior guard Reese Morgan tied a season scoring high with a game-best 17 points, but the Cal Poly men’s basketball team (10-9, 3-4 Big West Conference) could not complete a late comeback on the road Thursday night, losing 67-57 to conference-leading co-leader UC Irvine (12-8, 5-1).

The Anteaters started out scoring hot. Senior guard Travis Souza led the Anteaters to an early 15-6 advantage with back-to-back 3-pointers. They then used their athleticism and length to stop the Mustangs offense.

Cal Poly shot 40 percent (12-for-30) from the floor in the first half.

“Our shot selection needs to improve,” head coach Joe Callero said. “UC Irvine is a good defensive team, and we played into their hands by not getting the best shot possible.”

Lockdown Anteater defense and shaky shot selections by the Mustangs contributed to a scoring drought in which the Mustangs only had one field goal in a five-minute span.

Trailing 27-14, the Mustangs finally found their offensive rhythm.

A jumper by junior forward Joel Awich and a running layup by sophomore guard Ridge Shipley cut the deficit to 29-21 with seven minutes remaining in the first half.

Awich finished the game with 13 points and eight rebounds on efficient 6-for-11 shooting.

The Anteaters maintained their advantage the rest of the half and would lead 34-25 going into halftime.

The Mustangs came out more focused and intense on both ends of the court to start the second half.

Layups by junior forward Brian Bennett, junior guard David Nwaba, and senior guard Malik Love would bring the Mustangs right back into the game, only trailing 34-32 with 17:40 remaining in the game.

With the momentum on their side, the Mustangs continued to scrap but could never get over the hump and take the lead.

Leading only 44-43, the Anteaters seized the game by hitting four consecutive 3-pointers to take a 56-43 advantage with five and a half minutes remaining.

“It was just a huge defensive breakdown,” Morgan said. “We lost sight of the shooters. We just lost focus for a couple of minutes and they made us pay.”

“Our offensive possessions weren’t just good enough,” Callero added. “Bad shots led to bad defensive positioning, which led to open shots for them.”

The poor shot selection also led to the Mustangs getting out-rebounded, 39-28. The bad shots were the product of poor spacing, which led to an absence of rebounding, Callero explained.

Morgan would lead one last rally for the Mustangs — a four-point play and a layup by Morgan would spark a 10-2 run that cut the Anteaters’ lead to 63-55 with 55 seconds remaining.

The gap would prove to be too much for the Mustangs to overcome, and the Anteaters cruised to a 67-57 victory.

Despite the loss, there was still something to take away from the game.

“I’m proud of the way we fought back,” Callero said. “We could have just folded after they went on their run, but we responded. This will help us the rest of the season.”

More concerning for the Mustangs was the lack of defense Thursday night. UC Irvine’s 67 points on 47 percent (27-for-58) shooting is the first time in nine games in which the Mustangs had allowed 60-plus points.

“We just need to lock in defensively all game,” Morgan said.

Cal Poly ends its road trip at UC Davis in a nationally televised game on Saturday, Jan. 31, at 7 p.m.

“We’ve got to get back playing our style,” Morgan concluded. “We’re a confident team, and we know that we can beat any team home or away. If we play with the intensity needed all game, we’ve got a chance.”

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