The UCR men’s basketball team showed promise in erasing a 12-point deficit to pull even in the final minute, but it was not enough in the end as host Cal Poly sent the Highlanders to their fifth straight conference defeat, 67-65 in Mott Gym.
The Mustangs (7-10 overall, 4-2 Big West) prevailed in a hotly contested final seven minutes in which the game was tied four times, but Riverside (7-11, 1-5) could not get over the hump to take the lead. Junior forward Kyle Austin did his best to keep the contest close in the final minutes, drawing a foul and sinking both free throws with 1:14 left for two of his game-high 17 points to pull UCR within 65-64.
After an ensuing turnover from sophomore forward David Hanson, Austin headed to the line again, making one-of-two to tie the game at 65 with 22 seconds remaining. Solid Highlander defense forced Cal Poly to take a timeout with only five seconds on the clock, but Austin fouled junior guard Shawn Lewis with only 2 seconds left and Lewis hit one-of-two from the line for the winning score. The Highlanders shot themselves in the foot down the stretch, making only six-of-13 attempts from the charity stripe and cooling off from the field after shooting a torrid 61% in the first half.
The game seemed to be slipping away from Riverside early in the second half. Leading 36-32 at the break, the Mustangs went on a 9-2 run out of the gate to push the lead to a game-high 12. UCR responded with back-to-back three-pointers from senior guard Sean Cunningham and senior guard Rudy Meo chipped in five points to help the Highlanders take a 54-53 lead with just under eight minutes remaining. Riverside also climbed back from an 11 point deficit in the first half.
The close loss wasted the team’s best offensive output since its conference-opening overtime win against Long Beach State. Junior guard Larry Gurganious tallied 14 points and a game-high seven rebounds, while Meo added 10 points in only 16 minutes. UCR is now 0-for-3 on its current four-game road trip, which concludes Saturday at UC Irvine.
The Highlanders are looking up at the rest of the field from the cellar and are the lone team with only one league win. The schedule becomes friendlier in the coming weeks, as after Saturday’s road date with the Anteaters, five of the next six league games are in the Student Recreation Center. UCR hopes last night’s offensive improvement will translate into to wins. Otherwise, the squad may be on the outside looking in come Big West Tournament time.