A game after Cal Poly’s seniors said goodbye to Mott Gym, The Mustangs (17-8, 10-3 Big West) look to defend their first place spot in the Big West against Cal State Fullerton (12-15, 6-7) Thursday night.
“We certainly have teams breathing down our necks right now,” said junior guard Rachel Clancy, the league’s top three-point shooter.
Cal Poly is leading the Big West, a half-game ahead of UC Davis (17-8, 10-3). It’s the first time in program history the team has at least one win against all eight Big West opponents this season. If they keep first or second place entering the tournament, they will automatically earn two bye weeks that will take them to the semi-finals.
“We are trying our darndest to put ourselves in that position,” head coach Faith Minmaugh said. “If we can play one less game (to get closer to the championship) we would rather do that.”
The team recorded the highest scoring single-game total for the program since 2001 with their 100-78 win against Cal State Northridge this past weekend. As is consistent with many of their performances this year, the Mustangs outscored the Matadors in the second half — scoring 60 points to 39. They converted 40 percent of their shots in the first half but came out and scored just shy of 80 percent of their shots in the second.
“We got into the locker room and said we can’t be playing like this,” junior forward Kristina Santiago said. “We came out the second half and ended up blowing them out.”
Before the game, Cal Poly honored their seniors who had an outstanding game, according to Minmaugh. Santiago scored a team-best 24 points. The Santa Maria native is the conference leader in scoring, rebounds and steals.
“She (Santiago) is one of the best, if not the best player in the league,” Minmaugh said.
Santiago described the feeling of being in Mott Gym for the last time with people she’s been playing with since her freshman year.
“It was crazy,” she said. “All four starters standing with me were seniors. It hit me all of sudden … I’m never doing to be here standing with them again.”
Becky Tratter, Ashlee Stewart and Brittany Lange were honored as the graduating seniors. Tratter scored a career-high 19 points against Northridge. Lange went 4-4 and Stewart hit 4-5 from beyond the arc, contributing to a season-best 14 three-pointers for the team.
“They all played their butts off that game,” Santiago said. “It was a really good feeling leaving the court knowing they played so hard their last game at home.”
The Irish sharp-shooter Clancy, who recently indicated that she was graduating early, also participated in Senior Night. It’s still up-in-the-air whether she will be returning next season.
“I’m very close friends with Beck, Brit and Ash,” Clancy said. “A lot of them (her teammates) are planning to come visit me in Ireland, so hopefully that’s not the end of everything.”
Earlier this season, the Mustangs defeated Cal State Fullerton 76-73 in overtime.
“It went all the way down to the wire,” Clancy said about the first match. “It couldn’t get any closer.”
Minmaugh said the team has been working a lot on its press break since the Titans pose a tough man-to-man full-court defense. She also said they are the toughest offensive rebounding team in the league. The Mustangs were without Tratter that game.
“We have very different personnel, but a similar style of play,” Santiago said. “We both like to run so it should be a fast-paced, physical game.”
She explains that the team has grown since their first round of conference play. Different people step up at different times when the team is down in spirits, a change from past years.
“We havn’t played well there (at Fullerton) in the past, but I think we are a different team now,” she said. “We are better at getting over stuff … When we get down in the first half, we come out strong in the second.”
One of those contributors, Abby Blotecher, a strong presence in the paint for the Mustangs, tore her ACL in practice last week. The sophomore post player will be out for the rest of the year.
“Abby has been huge on the boards and as a post offender,” Minmaugh said. “We will miss her for sure.”
Santiago said the team will have to make adjustments, meaning she will also have to spend more time inside the paint.
“It’s a bummer that you go so hard in practice, and then to get hurt,” Santiago said.
Following Cal State Fullerton is UC Santa Barbara on Saturday, whom the Mustangs beat 67-62 previously. The conference closer will be at UC Irivine on Mar. 6.
“All these teams are having senior nights so these are big home games for them,” Santiago said. “They will be tough matches.”