Ryan Chartrand

The Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball team’s coaching staff hung back, calm and collected, talking amongst themselves while their players were left alone to relax on the bench in the face of pressure. About 50 feet away, Cal Poly head coach Kevin Bromley time and again urgently invested himself into impassioned instruction at the center of a close-knit huddle trying to learn on the fly.

There was only so much cramming the Mustangs could do Saturday night in Mott Gym, falling 80-67 to the more experienced Titans, and into sixth place in the Big West Conference.

“Our coaches really prepared us, and we knew everything to expect down the stretch,” said Scott Cutley, a senior forward who had 13 points and eight rebounds for Cal State Fullerton, whose entire roster is made up of juniors and seniors, all of whom are transfers.

Cal Poly, on the other hand, in light of again playing without senior guard Dawin Whiten, started two sophomores in forward Charles Anderson and guard Lorenzo Keeler, and played freshman guard Shawn Lewis 24 minutes off the bench. The three underclassmen combined to shoot just 2 of 12 from the floor and 2 of 6 from the free-throw line.

“They’re coming,” Bromley said of the trio, whose collective playing time has skyrocketed in the absence of Whiten, who will likely miss the remainder of the season due to plantar fasciitis in his right foot. “They’ve been thrown into a tough situation.”

It wasn’t the only unenviable predicament the Mustangs (9-13, 4-6 Big West) found themselves in, though, as they couldn’t score for the final four minutes and 43 seconds of the first half, during which the Titans (15-7, 8-3 Big West) reeled off a 10-0 run as part of a larger 24-8 surge to take the lead for good and head to the locker room ahead 36-28.

“Our defense sparked that run,” said Cal State Fullerton head coach Bob Burton. “It gave us a lot of momentum going into halftime.”

Cutley, whose Titans surrender the most points per game in the Big West, agreed that their unusually stingy defense triggered the pivotal stretch.

“We really picked up our defense,” he said. “We were lackadaisical and nonchalant but we elevated our effort. It’s about who you can stop, not how many points you can score.”

In the second half, Cal State Fullerton did enough of both, cooly sinking 15 of its 19 free throws while outrebounding Cal Poly 24 to 13. All but one of the Titans’ 14 offensive rebounds came in the second half.

The Mustangs, meanwhile, made just 1 of 8 attempts from long range after intermission and finished 12 of 23 from the charity stripe overall while falling behind by as many as 14 on a 3-pointer by Cal State Fullerton senior guard Frank Robinson with 6:14 remaining.

Robinson hit 4 of 6 from 3-point range on his way to a game-high 27 points.

Of his 16 that came in the second half, none knifed more into Cal Poly’s hopes than a silky 3-point dagger with 4:10 left to push the Titans advantage to 68-59.

Though the Mustangs trimmed the deficit to 73-66 with 2:06 remaining, the Titans nailed eight of 10 ensuing free throws to ice the victory.

The two final ones were made by junior guard Josh Akognon, who entered the contest firing 93.1 percent from the free-throw line, third-best in the country.

Akognon, who came into the game as the conference’s second-leading scorer, posting 20.2 points per outing, scored just four of his 15 points in the first half, during which Cal Poly took its largest lead at 20-12 on a turnaround by senior forward Matt Hanson 9:56 in.

At that point, the Mustangs had outscored the Titans 10-0 in the paint, but by intermission, the interior battle had been narrowed to 16-12.

Junior guard Trae Clark led Cal Poly with 16 points, while senior forwards Dreshawn Vance and Titus Shelton chipped in 14 apiece, respectively.

Although the seasoned Cal State Fullerton starting lineup, which was without suspended junior guard Junior Russell, outscored the greener Cal Poly starters 70-40, Burton downplayed the Titans’ veteran upper hand, pointing out that last season, the Mustangs beat them twice.

“They just didn’t make shots that they usually make,” he said. “They made those last year, and now for some reason they’re not going in as much.”

Last season’s Cal Poly squad, though, was anchored by sharpshooting senior forwards Derek Stockalper and Tyler McGinn. Now, without Whiten, whose 205-pound physique allowed him to pass for a small forward, their departure could be even more damaging on a team Bromley has repeatedly emphasized is different from last season’s edition, which came within a win of earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Anderson and Lewis, Bromley said, “have to really come on and solidify the (small forward) spot.

“We have to stay upbeat,” he added, opining there’s still time for the new-look rotation to gel and make a postseason run, especially in such a topsy-turvy conference whose unpredictability is exemplified by the fact that third-place Cal State Fullerton was swept by fourth-place UC Santa Barbara, which has in turn been swept by fifth-place UC Irvine.

“It’s crazy,” Bromley said.

Cal Poly plays at UC Santa Barbara at 7 p.m. Thursday.

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