Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo knows how to play a frustrating brand of basketball.
The defensive-minded Mustangs bleed the clock out running half-court sets, aggressively box up the ball handlers and frustrate even the sharpest of shooters – just ask UCLA.
But Long Beach State played through the frustration and grinded out a 50-48 win Saturday afternoon, effectively avenging its loss to the Mustangs earlier this season.
The sole blemish on an otherwise perfect Big West record, the 49ers fell to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in their second conference game in early January. It was a loss that the 49ers felt never should have occurred.
“Coming in, we were talking about how we take it personal,” said Long Beach point guard Mike Caffey. “We shouldn’t have lost that game in our eyes so we wanted to feel good about our confidence.”
The manner in which Long Beach (13-8, 9-1) won – overcoming a slow start and getting key defensive stops in the final minute – was the morale-booster the 49ers were looking for.
“Normally, when you play a team a second time in conference, the scoring goes down and it becomes a defensive battle,” said head coach Dan Monson. “That’s what happened tonight and I’m very encouraged by this game and our play on defense. We are improving every day, and when you win like this, it’s very encouraging.”
“It boosts our confidence because we know we can win in tight situations,” said forward James Ennis.
Ennis scored 23 points to lead the game and extended his streak of double-digit performances to 26 games. Ennis went 7-for-10 from the line and made five threes, helping The Beach to a 47.2 mark from the field.
The Mustangs were led by Kyle Odister, who came off the bench for 11 points. Reese Morgan finished with nine and Brian Bennett had eight to go along with eight rebounds.
Cal Poly out-rebounded Long Beach State 36-28, and for the third game in a row, Monson once again lamented his team’s drive to crash the glass. Ennis admittedly said the 49ers lost the battle when it came to rebounding.
“I guess we don’t like rebounding; I guess we’re soft,” Ennis said. “I think they were playing much harder than us on the boards.”
Both teams got off to a slow start to open the game. Tied at 11 with just over 12 minutes left in the first half, the Mustangs then used an 11-2 run to pull ahead to 21-13 over the next 5 ½ minutes. Poly ended the half with six unanswered points over the final three minutes to take a 30-25 halftime lead.
But Ennis caught fire early in the second half, scoring the first eight points for Long Beach.
However, the two defenses then collided. Over the next five minutes, Long Beach managed just six points while Cal Poly scored only two.
Long Beach struggled to pull up to a 42-37 lead but the Mustangs came right back. Odister hit a short, contested jumper to bring them back to within just one point, 42-41. The game would then be tied at 44 and again at 46.
Tied 46-46 after a timeout, Caffey hit a long face-up jumper with three seconds on the shot clock, swinging the momentum in the 49ers’ favor.
“I saw the court was spread and the shot clock was going down so I was just trying to make a play,” Caffey said.
With 50 seconds left, Chris Eversley tried to post up against Ennis, who blocked his shot into the waiting arms of Tony Freeland. Still clinging to a two-point lead on the Mustangs’ next possession, Keala King fouled Jamal Johnson. Johnson missed both shots, erupting a Pyramid crowd of 3,543.
Ennis sunk two final free throws to put the dagger in Cal Poly. Odister’s tip-in at the buzzer was too little too late, and the 49ers won their eighth-straight game.
“We had to play well, especially in the second half to win that game,” Monson said. “Cal poly made us maybe not look good but they’re a very good defensive team, every point it going to be contested.”