The UC Riverside men’s basketball team punched its ticket to the Big West Tournament as the fifth seed this year. In the 10-plus years they’ve competed in the Big West, the Highlanders have made it to the tournament six times and have advanced to the second round thrice. Coincidentally, each time the Highlanders advanced to the second round, they defeated the Cal Poly Mustangs. Looking to continue that streak, the Highlanders traveled to the Honda Center in Anaheim to compete in the first round of the 2012 Big West Tournament against the Mustangs once again.

However, a determined Cal Poly team looked to crush the Highlanders’ hopes of defeating them for the fourth straight time. Led by Amaurys Fermin, the Cal Poly Mustangs used a strong second half effort to beat the Highlanders with a 66-54 final score. With that loss, Riverside’s 2011-2012 season came to a disappointing close.

“The season is over,” said Highlander head coach Jim Wooldridge in a disgruntled post-game interview. “We couldn’t match them offensively. We knew they were going to continue to attack us in the lane. We just didn’t have enough bulk in there. We just couldn’t find any offense. It’s pretty simple.”

The Highlanders had a solid start to the game as Riverside used a 10-2 run toward the end of the first half to take a 34-28 lead going into the locker rooms. Robert Smith led the Highlanders in the first 20 minutes of action with 10 strong points.

With a solid six-point lead, the Highlanders opened the second half with a lack of energy and enthusiasm. Cal Poly took advantage of the Highlanders’ lackluster play at the start of the second half as the Mustangs outscored Riverside 22-5 in the first few minutes of action. Cal Poly led by as many as 12 points late in the game.

Coach Wooldridge called various timeouts to get his team back into it, but the Highlanders were unable to muster any type of comeback. Cal Poly maintained its double-digit advantage for the majority of the final minutes. The final buzzer went off and the Highlanders ended their season with a 54-66 loss to the Mustangs in the first round of the tournament.

After the game, graduating senior and star forward Phil Martin voiced his thoughts on Thursday night’s loss and the way the season ended. “It just didn’t bounce our way tonight,” he said.

Martin finished the season as the Big West’s leading scorer, averaging 19.5 points per game in conference matches. He ended the game with 15 points. Martin also earned Big West first-team honors at the end of the regular season.

The Highlanders will now look forward to the 2012-2013 season. Robert Smith, one of the team’s leading scorers, commented on what he expects from the upcoming season.

“[We have] to stay consistent,” Smith replied, referring the the team’s up and down streaks of this past year.

UC Riverside ends its 2012 season with a 14-17 overall record and a 7-9 conference record.

Cal Poly advanced to the semifinals of the tournament but lost the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos. The winner of the Big West Tournament was Long Beach State, who defeated the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos on Saturday.