POSTGAME REACTION: JOE CALLERO
FULLERTON, Calif. – Senior guard Jamal Johnson (right) scored a team-leading 12 points and sophomore forward Brian Bennett chipped in 10 as the Cal Poly men's basketball team cemented the program's best start to a Big West Conference campaign by outdueling Cal State Fullerton inside Titan Gym on Thursday evening, 58-56.
Junior guard Maliik Love and sophomore forward Joel Awich both finished with eight points for Cal Poly (8-10, 4-1), which led wire-to-wire and 55-53 with three minutes remaining before Awich drained a three-pointer. Titan senior guard Michael Williams then countered with a jumper on the ensuing possession to cut Cal Poly's lead to three. Following a Mustang turnover, Williams – after missing a potential game-tying three-pointer – sank a free throw to trim Cal Poly's advantage to 58-56 with two minutes to play.
The Titans (6-12, 1-3) twice forced Cal Poly into turnovers during the final 80 seconds, but twice missed jumpers down the stretch – including one by junior guard Alex Harris with two seconds left – as the Mustangs departed Titan Gym with their first victory in three seasons.
Cal Poly, which also opened Big West play with a fourth win in five games for the first time in the program's 18-year conference affiliation, shot 48.9 (22-for-45) percent from the floor and 58.3 (7-for-12) percent from three-point range.
Cal Poly, which retained second place in the Big West standings after conference-leading UC Irvine (13-7, 4-0) topped Cal State Northridge 72-66 earlier Thursday, concludes its two-game road trip at UC Riverside on Saturday, Jan. 25. Tip time is 7 p.m. for Cal Poly, which won its fourth successive conference road game.
A Johnson jumper five minutes into action allowed the Mustangs to double up Cal State Fullerton at 10-5 and Cal Poly received a pair of Bennett jumpers and a three-pointer from Awich as part of an eventual 11-0 run.
With the Mustangs holding a 17-11 lead at the nine-minute mark, Love and freshman guard Taylor Sutlive nailed three-pointers to reaffirm Cal Poly's double-digit advantage. Freshman guard Ridge Shipley then followed with a three-pointer of his own to boost Cal Poly's lead to 26-12 seven minutes before the break.
The Titans responded by holding Cal Poly scoreless for the ensuing four minutes, utilizing an 8-0 run to once again claw to within six points of the Mustang lead. The two sides traded baskets on the next four possessions with the Mustangs ultimately taking a 33-27 lead into halftime.
The Titans received layups from freshman guard Sheldon Blackwell, senior forward Marquis Horne and Harris inside the opening 90 seconds of the second half to deadlock the scoreline at 33-33. Bennett broke the run with a pair of free throws and after Williams resquared matters with a layup, Cal Poly cobbled together an 11-3 run to go up 46-38 at the 12-minute mark.
Cal State Fullerton closed to within three points of the Cal Poly lead just once before the Williams jumper with three minutes to play cut the Mustang advantage to 58-55.