Ryan Chartrand

Following a week of accolades and broken records, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team will take on UC Irvine in the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament at noon today at the Anaheim Convention Center.

The fifth-seeded Mustangs (11-18, 8-8) have downed the eighth-seeded Anteaters (7-23, 3-13) twice this season, and if they do it again, they will meet No. 4 seed Pacific at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.

Although Cal Poly beat UC Irvine 92-55 Jan. 12 and 84-65 Feb. 7, Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh said, “We are not taking them for granted at all. We’re going to have to play some tremendous defense – they’ve got great shooting.”

Eleven of Cal Poly’s 18 defeats have come by 10 or fewer points, reason to make Mimnaugh think the Mustangs are “right in the mix” of the tournament.

Of the tournament as a whole, Cal Poly junior forward Megan Harrison, who was named this week to the All-Big West Conference First Team, shared similar sentiments when it came to strategy.

“Our biggest strength is our ability to run the ball,” Harrison said. “No one in our conference is as fast as us on the court. If we push the ball every single time and if we stay committed to that, then the game is ours and we can do anything.”

Mimnaugh said she thinks Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara are the best transition teams in the Big West, and that in terms of team speed, the Mustangs are one of the fastest squads in the conference.

“I know they’re going to try to slow us down and hopefully they won’t be successful in that because that is a great strength of ours,” Mimnaugh said of the Anteaters.

UC Irvine, which was able to qualify for the postseason despite winning just three of its final 22 contests, is led by Stephanie Duda, who Mimnaugh called “relentless.”

The senior forward was ninth in the Big West in scoring at 12.4 points per game, and her Big West-leading 10.2 rebounds per contest were 12th in the country entering the week.

Also key for UC Irvine is sophomore forward Kelly Cochran, who posts 11.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per outing.

“They have some serious weapons that can certainly do some damage to us,” Mimnaugh said.

A Mustang who could see an increased role in stopping the Anteaters’ forward tandem is freshman forward Kristina Santiago, named recently to the All-Big West Freshman Team.

She’s been one of the best players in the conference in the past month, according to Mimnaugh, who said she has extraordinary athleticism for a post player.

“She’s just tearing it up,” Mimnaugh said. “If we can keep her out of foul trouble and keep her out on the floor she’s going to be something special not just for this tournament but for her whole career.”

Despite the success of the younger Mustangs, their veterans are ailing.

Guard Sparkle Anderson, forwards Kyla Howell and Toni Newman and center Nicole Yarwasky – all seniors – are overcoming injuries, but are all expected to play today, Mimnaugh said.

In last year’s tournament quarterfinal round March 8, 2007, the third-seeded Mustangs found themselves trailing sixth-seeded Long Beach State 40-16 at halftime. Their second-half rally came up short, ending their season in a 70-67 upset loss.

“Last year was a bit of a surprise,” Mimnaugh said. “I really was surprised we came out as flat as we were. I’m not really sure why we had the jitters as much as we did.”

Harrison said in order for the Mustangs to avoid a repeat of last year they’ll need to stay poised, push the ball up the floor and make sure not to become stagnant on offense.

“No one is saying it’s going to be easy to win four games in a row considering that we usually only play two games in a week,” Harrison said. “But I think the team’s ready for it.”

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