Page 2 From The Tournament: Slipper Fits For Cal Poly
Randy Youngman is a former Page 2 columnist with the Orange County Register
Will the Real Cinderella Please Stand Up?
Mustangs Strike Sweet Revenge
Parity Creates Wild-Open Battle for Trophy
ANAHEIM – Sometimes, March Madness begins before the NCAA Tournament tips off.
How’s this for madness? Two teams with losing records took out the top four seeds on the first two nights to barge their way into the Big West Tournament title game, and then No. 7 seed Cal Poly became the lowest seed in history to win the conference championship with a 61-59, hold-on-for-dear-life victory over No. 5 seed Cal State Northridge on Saturday night at Honda Center.
As a direct result, California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo – Cal Poly for short and Cal Poly Cinderella this week – is headed to the school’s first NCAA Tournament as a Division I team.
It no longer matters that the Mustangs began the week with a 10-19 record and rated 222nd among 349 Division I basketball teams in the national RPI power rankings.
“This is surreal!” gushed an exuberant Joe Callero, Cal Poly’s fifth-year coach, after he and his players took turns cutting down the nets at Honda Center, where Mustangs fans stormed the court to celebrate when Northridge’s last possession ended with a half-court desperation heave that came after the buzzer.
Because of their unusually low power rating, the Mustangs (13-19) likely will learn in Sunday’s NCAA Selection Show that they will be seeded No. 16 and sent to Dayton, Ohio for a play-in game on Tuesday or Wednesday night.
If they win that game, Cal Poly likely will have to play a No. 1 seed such as undefeated Wichita State or top-ranked Florida.
And that’s exactly what Callero wants, even though the chances of a No. 16 seed upsetting a No. 1 seed are roughly that of, well, winning the lottery.
Check that. Somebody always wins the lottery.
“My crazy weird thing is that . . . you might not know this, but I’m one of 16 children and a 16 seed has never beaten a 1,” said Callero, who grew up in an Italian Catholic family in Mercer Island, Wash. “My whole life I always thought karma was when a 16 (finally) beats a 1 seed, a 1-in-16 child should be the one (to do it).
“I don’t care where we go (as a team). I just want to make sure we’re a 16 seed, because that’s a lucky number. I know it’s a little weird, but I just hope it works out (that way).
“I don’t care if it’s Dayton or Cincinnati as long as we’re a 16. And has anyone ever WANTED to be a seed (like he does)? If we’re a 15, I’m going to be ticked!”
He was smiling, but I think he was serious.
“That’s our coach,” said laughing senior forward Chris Eversley, who was named tournament MVP after leading the Mustangs with 18 points in Saturday’s title game.
It really doesn’t matter where or when or whom Cal Poly will be playing, because no one outside of their locker room expected the Mustangs to still be dunking and dribbling after they lost nine of their last 11 regular-season games. That, however, was not the feeling in the locker room.
“Even when we lost nine of 11 games at the end of the regular season, nobody on the team believed our season was over,” said Eversley, wearing a necklace made of the net cords his team cut down. “We started the season 3-0 (in conference play) and we ended the tournament 3-0.”
Eversley also pointed out that his team is still playing because of the key contributions of his teammates, such as the huge 3-pointer freshman reserve guard Ridge Shipley swished with 33.7 seconds left to give Cal Poly a 60-59 lead it would not lose.
Equally important was the charging foul reserve forward Zach Gordon took with four seconds left, negating what would have been the go-ahead field goal by Northridge’s Tre Hale-Edmerson.
“This felt like a Disney movie,” Eversley said, smiling again. “These guys never quit. All those people who drove down (from San Luis Obispo) and supported us, this is for them. They stuck with us and we played our hearts out for them.”
A lot of teams might have packed it in after the Mustangs began the game by missing 15 of their first 18 field-goal attempts to fall behind the Matadors, 21-10.
But Cal Poly battled back, just as it did the night before in upsetting top-seeded UC Irvine, and trailed by only four points at halftime (29-25).
The Mustangs caught Northridge early in the second half, and the game went back and forth, with nine tie scores and 10 lead changes before Shipley hit the trey that stood up as the clincher.
“To be honest, I just remember Chris throwing the ball and I made it,” said Shipley, who contributed 14 points and three assists in 25 minutes off the bench. “It doesn’t mean much personally, but it got us the victory as a team.”
Cal State Northridge coach Reggie Theus congratulated Cal Poly on the victory.
“They played a well-coached game, and they made the shots down the stretch,” Theus said. “Sometimes the calls go against you, and sometimes they don’t. . . .
“I’m very proud that we had the opportunity to potentially go to the NCAAs, and coming within a basket to make it, that motivation should start us off next year.”
Meanwhile, Cal Poly Cinderella is on the way to the Big Dance.
Will 16 be their lucky number? March Madness resumes this week. Anything can happen. Right, Joe Callero?
LAYUP LINE: The only other team to win the Big West Tournament title with a losing record was San Jose State in 1996, when it won as a No. 6 seed, the lowest champion seed until Saturday . . . This was the first time in tournament history that two teams without winning records played for the title . . . Cal State Northridge came into the title game with a 245 RPI, so it also would have been a Cinderella champion and a likely No. 16 NCAA seed if it had prevailed. . . . Cal Poly committed a total of only 18 turnovers during its three-game tournament sweep, lowering its average of 9.1, fifth-best nationally . . . This was also the most closely contested title game since Pacific defeated Northridge, 75-73, in 2004 . . . In addition to MVP Eversley, the All-Tournament team was comprised of David Nwaba of Cal Poly, Northridge teammates Josh Greene, Stephan Hicks and Stephen Maxwell, and Will Davis II of UC Irvine . . . Saturday’s attendance was announced at 3,626.