Big West Tournament: Cal Poly upsets UC Irvine in semis

The seventh-seeded Mustangs will play No. 5 seed Cal State Northridge in the Big West Tournament final.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Russell Turner isn’t about to play the victim but in a sense, his top-seeded Anteaters are somewhat a victim of the college basketball tournament system.

But on the other side of things, Cal Poly is working that system, extending their improbable run through the Big West Championship Tournament right into the final round, as they knocked off the regular season champs in UC Irvine 61-58, Friday night at the Honda Center. 

UC Irvine (23-11) was down just three in a final minute prolonged by three call reviews and Chris McNealy was unable to net a final game-tying three from the corner.  

The seventh-seeded Mustangs, who lost nine of their last 11 games coming into the postseason, will play No. 5 seed Cal State Northridge Saturday afternoon in quite possibly one of the most unlikely conference tournament finals matchups in the country.

"We didn’t come up with anything magical, we’ve played them three times," said head coach Joe Callero. "Our motto right now is, ‘Let’s not be lucky, let’s be good.’ We don’t want to get lucky, we want good execution."

It was the first time since 1991 that the seventh seed knocked off the top seed and the last team to do it, Fresno State, isn’t even in the conference anymore. It also marked the first time in Big West history that the No. 7 seed beat the first and only the second time the seventh seed has made it all the way to the finals.

But the Big West is only a one-bid conference and with the elimination of both UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara, the two teams with the best bodies of work will be left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Anteaters will accept a bid into the NIT.

"College basketball is a tournament sport and I couldn’t believe any more firmly that the tournament champion should represent our conference in the NCAA Tournament," Turner said. "We know we’re going to play in the NIT and we’ll be excited for the opportunity to compete. But it’s hard to focus on that right now because what I thought we would be thinking about right now is getting ice baths for tomorrow to get ready to compete."

Cal Poly’s winning formula has looked very un-Cal Poly-like at times this week. The Mustangs (12-19) have played a more uptempo game with a high-scoring bench. A physical team that often back off contact in order to get around 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye, brought back the physicality and pressure it needed to limit Ndiaye and get to the free-throw line. 

"Seemed like they were just pressuring us more than the last game that we played them in," said forward Will Davis II. "I feel like we fought the whole game. We played our hearts out, we just had some mental lapses in defense and Poly just got the best of us tonight."