Lauren Rabaino

Kristina Santiago just keeps getting better and better.

The 6-foot-2 freshman took the floor as a center in her eighth start of the season Wednesday afternoon and led the Cal Poly women’s basketball team to a 76-61 win over UC Irvine at the Anaheim Convention Center in the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament.

Santiago, a Santa Maria native, was 6 of 7 from the floor and sank 9 of 12 free throws on her way to game highs of 21 points and 11 rebounds in just 19 minutes.

Despite closing the regular season with overall averages of 6.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, she’s posted 20 points and 10.3 rebounds in the Mustangs’ previous three outings.

Her latest marquee performance came on the heels of being named Monday to the All-Big West Freshman Team.

She got plenty of help, though, especially from her frontcourt teammates, junior forwards Lisa McBride and Megan Harrison.

McBride was 5 of 10 from the floor for 12 points and eight rebounds and two blocks, while Harrison was 3 of 10, respectively, in adding 11 points, five rebounds and two blocks of her own.

Sophomore forward Rebecca Tratter was 4 of 9 from the floor to chip in nine points and eight rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench.

Fifth-seeded Cal Poly (12-18), which outscored the eighth-seeded Anteaters 34-24 in the paint, held a 51-34 rebounding advantage despite shooting 27 of 56 from the floor compared to UC Irvine’s 23-of-75 showing.

Anteaters senior forward Stephanie Duda, who entered the contest averaging team highs of 12.4 points and 10.2 rebounds a game, was held to 3-of-10 shooting, six points and two rebounds.

Sophomore forward Kelly Cochran, UC Irvine’s second-leading scorer, was 2 for 7 from the floor en route to five points and six rebounds. Sophomore guard Rebecca Maessen was 5 of 9 from the floor to pace the Anteaters (7-24) with 13 points in a game-high 31 minutes.

No one played more than 24 minutes on behalf of Cal Poly.

The Mustangs led 37-19 at halftime, in stark contrast to their 40-16 deficit at intermission in their tournament-opening, 70-67 loss to Long Beach State on March 8, 2007.

UC Irvine’s first-half output was its lowest of the season.

A 3-pointer by senior center Nicole Yarwasky gave the Mustangs a 13-4 lead just four minutes and 57 seconds into the game, and by the time Tratter completed a three-point play with 7:16 left before the break, the Mustangs led 29-9.

They established their largest lead of 23 at 42-19 on a Harrison three-point play of her own 1:59 into the second half.

Cal Poly, which won for the third time in four tries, faces No. 4 seed Pacific today, with tip-off tentatively scheduled for 2:30 p.m. – 30 minutes after the anticipated conclusion of the first quarterfinal match-up of the day.

The Mustangs lost twice in overtime to the Tigers this season, 89-88 in Stockton on Jan. 24 and 75-69 at Mott Gym on Feb. 23.

Santiago played a mere seven minutes combined in the two defeats, though.

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