[follow id = “HarryChangMN”]
No Nwaba, no problem.
Led by a career high in points by sophomore guard Ridge Shipley, the Cal Poly basketball team (11-11, 4-6 Big West Conference) fended off Cal State Northridge Thursday night in Mott Athletics Center for a 70-63 win, despite the absence of junior wing and offensive catalyst David Nwaba, who sat due to due to illness.
Shipley’s 26 points — 19 of which came in a first-half 6-of-7 shooting outburst — led the way for the Mustangs, who held strong on their home court after dropping their first contest against the Matadors in Northridge.
“I thought it was the best half of basketball clearly he’s ever played here,” head coach Joe Callero said of Shipley’s performance. “But I also think it’s the best half of basketball a point guard has played for us my six years here, and the reason I say that is not just because he made buckets, but the timing of when he took them.”
Tied at 4-4 after a slow start by both teams in the game’s first sequence, the Mustangs found their stride when a Shipley layup broke the deadlock.
Following the lay-in, the Mustangs received back-to-back 3-pointers from Awich and Shipley before a defensive stop led to another Shipley layup.
“[I was] trying to keep an offensive mindset,” Shipley said. “An attacking mindset, where when there’s space on the floor I try to drive it and when there’s an opening I try to score and if not there’s going to be someone open.”
A block, a put-back from senior guard Reese Morgan, and another defensive hold finally culminated in a Morgan 3-pointer, which capped the 15-2 run to put Cal Poly ahead 19-6.
But Shipley wasn’t done. With 7:30 to go in the half, the 6-foot 184-pound guard from Carrollton, Texas would again hit a big shot to spark a pivotal offensive sequence.
The Mustangs’ offense followed Shipley’s shot-making by sinking five of their next seven shots — including another Shipley 3-ball, two Shipley free throws and layup from senior guard Maliik Love which gave the Mustangs a 19-point advantage, their biggest lead of the half.
The Mustangs ended the half up 33-19. The first 20 minutes was of the team’s best all-around first-half performances of the year, its defense holding the Matadors to 31 percent shooting while the offense made 47.8 percent of their own field goal attempts.
Alongside Shipley, Awich continued to churn out stellar performances in Big West play Thursday night. The junior got things started for the Mustangs with a 3-pointer coming out of the half and finished the night with 15 points, but it was his presence in the defensive paint that enabled much of the Mustangs’ offense.
“We were just trying to pressure them every single time,” Awich said. “ Just have someone on them and force them into bad shots, make them turn over the ball. I think our defense is where we want it to be. I think we can play with any team in our conference right now we just have to keep improving and look forward to next game.”
Awich finished with four blocks and multiple disrupted passes that didn’t show up in the scorecard, but were huge in keeping the Matadors’ offense out of tempo.
Despite all the success and energy the first half brought, the Mustangs saw much of their 14-point halftime lead evaporate in a much more competitive second half.
Just under eight minutes into the half, Matadors sophomore guard Stephen Maxwell hit back-to-back free throws to cap a 15-3 run that cut the Cal Poly lead down to just four.
Moments later, it was freshman guard Aaron Parks who hit a pair of free throws for Northridge, this time getting the Matadors within three. An Awich jumper, however, would answer the Matadors’ run and helped in getting Cal Poly its energy back on both sides of the floor.
“Every time we play Northridge, ever since the (2014 Big West tournament) it’s always an emotional game,” Awich said. “This one was just really a test of toughness. They weren’t going to back down and credit to them, they came back and they fought hard and really pushed us to the edge. And that’s what we need going forward is to be stronger and tougher.”
Minutes later, pairs of free throws by Morgan on consecutive trips down the floor would again extend the Mustangs’ lead back to 14. The run was a refreshing sight for a Cal Poly team with numerous lackluster second-half performances in several close conference games.
Morgan would finish the night with 16 points and a team-leading three assists, while senior guard Malik Love finished with eight points.
Late in the game, the emotion Awich spoke of between the two teams came to fruition when multiple technical fouls were called between the sides.
The drama, however, remained a side-story as the Mustangs kept their cool and finished off the win to end their three-game skid to give themselves a bit of momentum heading into Saturday night’s 7 p.m home matchup against Long Beach State.
“Tonight, the character of the team I thought was ‘we’re going to be determined,’” Callero said. “We didn’t have the head hanging or playing ‘not to lose,’ we were determined to win.”