The Cal Poly women’s basketball team was on the verge of a significant breakthrough last season when its surprising run through the Big West Conference Tournament was stopped by eventual champion UC Santa Barbara.
While the Mustangs got a brief taste of success toward the end of the year, Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh says they’re ready for the full experience.
“We are definitely hungry,” Mimnaugh said. “One thing that we talk about is that we want to practice like a championship team would practice. We don’t want to take any days off.”
If Cal Poly wants to be a championship team, it will likely need to depend on the senior duo of Lisa McBride and Megan Harrison.
Harrison, a 6-foot-1 forward, led the team with 13.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, as Cal Poly finished 13-19 overall, but 8-8 in the Big West. She was the only Mustang selected to the All-Big West First Team.
Joining Harrison in the frontcourt is 6-2 forward Lisa McBride. She averaged 9.5 points and six rebounds, at times showing signs of brilliance that won her two Big West Player of the Week awards.
“We’re kind of tugging on the strings of two tremendous leaders in Megan Harrison and Lisa McBride,” Mimnaugh said. “Both seniors have the ability to lead not only by example but by their word and their deed. They’re incredible examples for their teammates.”
The frontcourt figures to be where the Mustangs will have an advantage this season, with three potential starters at least 6-1.
“We are the tallest team in the conference,” Harrison said. “So we should get a lot of attacks at the basket and some good looks through penetration, offensive rebounding and our post game.”
McBride agreed that up front is where Cal Poly will do most of its damage, but the players’ mentality might separate them from the rest of the conference.
“We have a really smart frontcourt,” McBride explained. “We make good decisions, pass well and are really good shooters. There is no question that we have a lot of talent, more talent than I think we can almost have room for.”
A key ingredient in the team’s late-season surge was the emergence of then-freshman forward Kristina Santiago.
Mimnaugh said that after a summer of improvement, Santiago’s potential may be unlimited.
“She’s added a 3-point shot,” Mimnaugh said. “Her ability to get out on the break is phenomenal. She’s got such great speed. Her ability to handle the ball, get to the bucket and work some of her magic is pretty impressive. Certainly, this is a player that with continued progress – there is no reason why she can’t be the Big West Player of the Year in a couple years time.”
Mimnaugh isn’t the only one singing the praises of Santiago’s improvement.
“She can go right and left now,” McBride said. “She’s probably the best rebounder on the team. She grabs every single board and blocks shots. She could be first-team this year.”
While the forwards may get most of the attention, the team believes that guard play will set the pace.
“We have really strong guards this year,” McBride said.
Junior Ashlee Stewart will likely start at point guard, and sophomore Rachel Clancy, who redshirted after transferring from Duquesne, is expected to be a key contributor at shooting guard.
The Mustangs will play 16 home games this season, highlighted by a visit from UCLA to Mott Gym on Nov. 26 in a rematch of a 107-83 Bruins win last season.
“I think the schedule is really good for us,” McBride said. “I think we can beat (UCLA). We were down seven at halftime.”
While a victory over UCLA would be a triumph for the program, Mimnaugh said that in order to compete for a conference title, the Mustangs need to improve defensively.
“We really can shoot the ball,” Mimnaugh said. “If we can defend half as well as we can shoot it, we’ll be in shape to contend for a championship.”
The Mustangs will host Cal State Monterey Bay in a season-opening exhibition at 1 p.m. Saturday.