Senior forward Chris Eversley and sophomore wing David Nwaba each scored a team-leading 14 points as the Cal Poly men's basketball team advanced to the Big West Conference Tournament championship game following a seven-year absence after eliminating top-seeded UC Irvine in the semifinal round on Friday evening inside the Honda Center, 61-58.
Sophomore forward Brian Bennett added 12 points and a game-high nine rebounds for Cal Poly (12-19), which will face either No. 3 Long Beach State (15-16) or No. 5 Cal State Northridge (16-17) in Saturday's ESPN2-televised, 7:30 p.m. Big West Tournament championship game. Cal Poly, which reached a third successive semifinal appearance by knocking out second-seeded UC Santa Barbara on Thursday 69-38, received nine points from senior guard Kyle Odister and shot 45.1 (23-for-51) percent from the floor and 45.5 (5-for-11) percent from three-point range.
Saturday's Big West Tournament championship game will be Cal Poly's third in 12 tournament appearances. The Mustangs lost in the 2003 and 2007 titles matchups.
In reaching Saturday's Big West Tournament title game, Cal Poly established a new set of conference distinctions, namely:
– becoming the first No. 7 seed in the 39-year history of the Big West Tournament to beat a No. 1;
– becoming the first No. 7 seed to win a semifinal game since Fresno State reached the 1991 final;
– becoming the lowest-seeded team to play for the Big West Tournament title since 10th-seeded UC Irvine lost the 1994 final to No. 1 New Mexico State and;
– becoming the lowest-seeded team in the history of the tournament to eliminate both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.
Leading Friday's semifinal matchup 61-55 following a pair of Nwaba free throws with 67 seconds to play, Cal Poly surrendered a three-pointer to sophomore guard Alex Young. UC Irvine sophomore guard Dominque Dunning then forced a steal from Mustang senior guard Jamal Johnson, but Young missed a layup that would have brought the Anteaters to within one point of the Mustang lead.
Eversley grabbed the rebound, but found himself fouled by Young. Eversley, however, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 20 seconds to play and after UC Irvine senior guard Chris McNealy missed a three-point attempt with six seconds to play, Anteaters freshman guard Luke Nelson fell short at the buzzer with his attempt.
Neither side led Friday's semifinal by more than three points until a 13-2, six-minute run by the Anteaters delivered UC Irvine a 21-13 advantage with nine minutes remaining in the opening half.
Junior wing Michael Bolden helped stem UC Irvine's run with a three-pointer. The shot helped kickstart Cal Poly's own spurt with the Mustangs compiling a 9-2 run during a five-minute span to draw to a 23-22 deficit.
After the second of Odister's three three-pointers drew the Mustangs level at 25-25 with three-and-a-half minutes remaining in the first half, Cal Poly deadlocked the scoreline twice more before an Eversley jumper from the right corner placed the Mustangs up at the break, 31-29.
Despite conceding a 52.4 (11-for-21) percent field goal mark to UC Irvine in the first half, Cal Poly forced the Anteaters into eight turnovers while suffering just one.
Cal Poly continued its ascendancy into the second half, as back-to-back jumpers from sophomore forward Joel Awich helped the Mustangs score 10 of the first 12 points and push toward a 41-31 lead with 16 minutes to play.
UC Irvine countered with an 8-2 run to move to within four points of Cal Poly's lead at 43-39 with 12-and-a-half left. Once again, however, Cal Poly fended off UC Irvine as another Awich layup broke the run.
The Anteaters, who outrebounded Cal Poly, 32-26, closed to within fewer than three points of the Mustang lead just once the remainder of the night.