Dylan Royer and Drake U’u found chemistry on the court Thursday. Mustaches and all.
The senior gaurds have sported matching facial hair during the final stretch of the season and sparked a second-half explosion to lead Cal Poly past UC Davis 64-41 in the quarterfinals of the Big West Conference Tournament.
“One of the great parts about this team is that we enjoy playing with each other, we’re having fun out there,” U’u said. “If we’re on a fast break and I see Dylan open and he hits a 3, we’re smiling at each other and laughing coming down the court.”
The Mustangs, a No. 3 seed in the tournament, found themselves leading by one point after sluggish first half. But U’u took the opening possession of the second half to the bucket for an easy layup. He followed it up with a pull-up jumper and then put back a missed layup for another two points. On the Mustangs’ next trip down the court, Royer found space, sunk a 3-pointer and the floodgates were open.
It took all of 2 minutes and 56 seconds to turn a nailbiter into a blowout on the backs of two players who are playing in their final conference tournament.
“I didn’t want this season to end,” U’u said. “I know we have a great team and we have high expectations for ourselves. I really wanted to start (the second half) by pushing the tempo and being aggressive.”
Royer, the only Cal Poly player to start in consecutive Big West tournaments, used experience to his advantage, hitting all five of his 3-point attempts. He led all scorers with 17 points while U’u tacked on 10 more.
There was one conspicuous absence from the Mustangs’ top performers, Chris Eversley. The junior forward was forced into long jump shots early and never seemed to find his rhythm. He finished with seven points, but was 3-of-11 from the field and missed 2-of-3 free throws.
“We didn’t do a good job flowing it (to Eversley) in the first half,” head coach Joe Callero said. “One thing we learned about this team is that it’s not just about Chris Eversley or Dylan Royer; it’s not about Drake U’u. Every one of them will tell you it’s about the team.”
In last year’s tournament quarterfinals, Eversley bolted out to an 11-point, four-rebound night off the bench in the Mustangs’ victory over UC Riverside then was held to four points against UC Santa Barbara the following night.
The Mustangs’ leading scorer hasn’t gone two consecutive games with fewer than 10 points since scoring seven and nine against UC Riverside and Long Beach State, respectively, to begin Big West play.
As silent as Eversley was statistically, the top players on UC Davis were even more so.
Corey Hawkins was the conference’s leading scorer, averaging more than 20 points per game, but Cal Poly shut down his options. Prior to leaving the game because of an injury late in the second half, he was 2-of-9 from the field with one 3-pointer.
It was the first time in Big West action that Hawkins was held to fewer than 16 points.
UC Davis’ Ryan Sypkens is ranked in the top 15 nationally in 3-point field goal percentage. He connected on 2-of-9 attempts from long range and led the Aggies with nine points.
As for the Mustangs, Callero started two freshmen with Brian Bennett anchoring the middle of the Mustangs’ court and Reese Morgan getting the call at guard. Bennett pulled down nine rebounds and scored eight points after finding his stroke from close range in the second half. Morgan hit a 3-pointer and was fouled on the play, giving him all of his four points on the afternoon in one play.
The Mustangs will play again at 9 p.m. on Friday night against Pacific, the No. 2 seed, in their second consecutive Big West tournament semifinal. A win advances Cal Poly to the finals and gives the team an opportunity to play for a spot in the NCAA tournament.