The automatic bid that comes with winning a conference tournament provides teams with a last-ditch hope of landing in the NCAA tournament. Cal Poly is the perfect example of that.
A three-ball from the top of the key by 6-foot true freshman guard Ridge Shipley with 14 seconds left in the Big West Championship clinched an improbable tourney berth for Mustangs, who outlasted Cal State Northridge 61-59 Saturday night.
The win means that the 13-19 Mustangs, the No. 7 seed in the eight-team tournament, are going dancing for the first time in school history. The Mustangs had lost nine of their last 11 regular season games and entered the conference tournament with a putrid 10-19 overall record (6-10 Big West).
They started tournament play by demolishing No. 2 seed UC Santa Barbara 69-38 just five days after UCSB beat the Mustangs by 16 points in the regular season finale. Then on Friday, the Mustangs knocked off top-seeded UC Irvine (23-11, 13-3 Big West) by a mere three points to reach the final.
Once things got going, Northridge, the tournament’s No. 5 seed, jumped out to an early lead that reached as much as 21-10 before the Mustangs clawed their way back to just a five-point halftime deficit. Headed by leading scorers Chris Eversley (18 points, five rebounds) and Dave Nwaba (17 points, six rebounds, three blocks), the Mustangs started the second half shooting the ball extremely well to close the gap.
The game was back-and-forth the rest of the way until Shipley hit his dramatic three-pointer to give Poly a 60-59 lead. The Matadors had a chance to win it, but Tre Hale-Edmerson was called for a questionable offensive foul call with four seconds left as he hit a shot in the paint. The foul negated the basket and sealed the win and tournament berth for the Mustangs.
At 13-19 (a .406 winning percentage), the Mustangs have one of the worst records of any tournament team in recent memory. In the past 20 years, other notable tournament teams with awful records include Florida International’s 11-18 (.379) record in 1995, Central Florida’s 11-18 (.379) record in 1996, Fairfield’s 11-18 (.379) record in 1997, Florida A&M’s 12-18 (.400) record in 1999, and Oakland’s 12-18 (.400) record in 2005.
The team with the worst winning percentage to reach the tournament was the 1961 George Washington team with a 9-16 (.360) record.
To make the whole thing even more unlikely, Cal Poly had been 0-16 when trailing after the first half on the season. Now the Mustangs are dancing.
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