Half-crying in pain, half-crying because of elation, senior guard Kayla Griffin was the first one on the ladder to cut down the net.
With scissors in hand, Griffin’s teammates lifted her up onto the top rung as she snipped away at the nylon — symbolizing the Cal Poly women’s basketball team’s first conference title since joining the Division I ranks — and added context to one of the most emotional images of the Big West Conference Tournament.
Less than four minutes into the second half of the Mustangs’ eventual tournament-clinching victory against Pacific, Griffin attempted to save a loose ball on the baseline before it rolled out of bounds. Instead, she planted awkwardly, twisting her left knee and falling to the floor in pain.
The sidelines gasped. Everyone, including Griffin, knew what happened.
“My foot stuck, but then my knee kept going,” Griffin said. “It just twisted and I heard two pops in my knee. They said I tore my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and I could have torn my medial collateral ligament (MCL).”
With those two pops, her season and her career were over.
Nevertheless, Griffin, Cal Poly’s leading rebounder entering the Big West tournament, returned to the bench later in the second half with a wrap around her knee, swollen red eyes and a crutch to support her stance, cheering on the program’s first-ever conference title and trip to the NCAA tournament.
“If I’m gonna tear it in one game, better be in that one,” Griffin said. “The win makes it feel so much better.”
But as the Mustangs advance to play No. 3 Penn State this Sunday, they will be without the services of one of the most important pieces of their inaugural title run. While she doesn’t always make a splash on the stat sheet, Griffin is one of those players that holds a championship caliber team together, according to her teammates.
“Kayla is like the glue to our team,” senior forward Brittany Woodard said. “It’s a huge loss, but it keeps going … Life goes on, basketball goes on.”
Woodard is no stranger to season-ending knee injuries herself. In an eerily similar situation to Griffin’s earlier, she tore her ACL against the same Pacific squad in mid-January and is now forced to watch her team’s historic run from the sidelines.
“I came up to her and told her that I loved her and that she’s like a sister to me,” Woodard said. “I told her to just hang in there.”
Griffin is also familiar to knee injuries as she tore her left ACL at Moreau Catholic High School several years ago, adding to the gravity of her current injury. She said watching her coaches’ reactions on the bench as she went down told the entire story of what had happened — but her immediate thought was with her team’s performance on the other end of the floor.
“At that time, I just wanted my team to win,” Griffin said. “I was like, ‘If I could run right now, I would be out there.’ I didn’t care what kind of pain I was in.”
Griffin averaged eight points and more than seven rebounds per game entering the conference tournament, feats that earned her the Big West Hustle Player Award this season — the fifth Cal Poly player to ever win that accolade.
But, most importantly, she was the only player to start in each of Cal Poly’s 31 games this year and averaged a team-high 32.2 minutes on the floor.
“We wouldn’t be in this position without Kayla, there’s no question,” head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “She makes us go. She’s so smart and defends like a monster. She contributed big time … I hated that she couldn’t be on the court at the end of the game.”
Someone will have to step up in her absence if the Mustangs want a shot at a first round upset, but Griffin thinks that their team-oriented play, which got them their elusive title Saturday, will carry over into this weekend.
“I could actually envision us cutting down the nets this time,” Griffin said. “I think it took our whole team to do it and that’s why I think I saw this happening.”
But without Griffin to hold it all together, the Mustangs are hoping that team dynamic doesn’t come unglued before more history is made.