DAYTON, Ohio — Now that Cal Poly has gotten its first NCAA victory out of the way, why stop at one?
Chris Eversley scored 19 points to help Cal Poly become the first team in 59 years with 19 losses to win an NCAA tournament game, beating Texas Southern 81-69 on Wednesday night in the First Four.
Now the team with the worst record in the tournament (14-19) moves on to face the one with the best — top-seeded Wichita State (34-0) — in the second round in St. Louis on Friday.
It’s exactly what Mustangs coach Joe Callero had hoped.
“I’m so weird that I was cheering the last five years that a 16 (seed) never upsets a 1,” he said. “Because if we ever got a bid, we’d be a 16 seed and then we’d have a chance to make real history.”
They’ve already done that.
The Mustangs were 0-3 and 4-9 early this season. They didn’t exactly inspire confidence heading into the Big West Conference tournament — losing nine of 11 — but they won the title to earn the program’s first NCAA bid.
There have been 23 teams with losing records in the NCAA tournament since 1955. The only other 19-loss team to win was Bradley (7-19), which won a game but lost in the final eight in 1955.
David Nwaba added 17 points and Brian Bennett — who was a perfect 5 for 5 from the field — had 10 for the Mustangs. Held back by injuries all season, a team that shot 41 percent from the field for the season saved its best for last by making 57 percent on the biggest stage. The 81 points was its second most in a game all year.
So should Wichita State be worried?
“Wichita State is a great team. They’re a national favorite. They’ve been undefeated all season,” Eversley said after flashing a quick grin when he heard the question. “We’re going to get on a plane tonight, get to St. Louis, Mo., and just go start on a scouting report and make sure we’re ready for Wichita State — and go out there keep playing the way we’ve been playing.”
Aaric Murray closed out his career with 38 points for Texas Southern (19-15), champs of the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.
“He was going to get his points either way, so we knew he would just need to take the other players out of the game,” said Nwaba, who got Cal Poly out of the blocks with eight of its first 10 points. “That was our plan going in.”
Murray was the top player on the court, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers. Originally a blue-chip recruit for La Salle, he left there for West Virginia where he was dismissed from the team. In his final year of eligibility for Texas Southern, he had 28 points against Stanford, 30 against Tulsa and 48 against Temple in his return home to Philadelphia.
Cal Poly dominated most of the first half to build a 12-point lead at the break and never let it go.
The Tigers, who had won nine in a row, cut the lead to 73-66 with 2:16 left, but the Mustangs hit 8 of 10 fouls shots over the last 1:42 to seal the deal.
The Mustangs pulled away midway through the opening half.
Cal Poly took the lead for good on Bennett’s slashing move to the hoop. After a Texas Southern miss, Bennett scored again on a 14-foot jumper. Those two baskets keyed a 16-7 burst for a 32-24 lead.
“They took advantage of our mistakes defensively,” said Texas Southern coach Mike Davis, who had also led Indiana and UAB into the tournament. “They shared the ball well. They had one turnover in the first half. It’s hard to beat a basketball team that has one turnover.”
Murray finished 14 of 23 from the field, 3 of 5 behind the arc and 7 for 7 at the line.
“They didn’t let me catch the ball one on one; they didn’t let me go against their big one on one,” he said. “And they just played some good defense.”
The Mustangs led the Big West in scoring defense, allowing 63.4 points a game while finishing last in scoring (63.2). Conversely, the Tigers, now 0-5 in NCAA play, led the SWAC in scoring (76.2 points) but was near the bottom in defense (73.7).
Now that his team is healthy and on a roll, having won four straight, Callero wasn’t making plans to head home early.
“We got letters and texts from everyone saying, ‘Hey, congrats that you made it,’” he said. “It’s great to make it, but better to do something when you get there and get a victory.”