Benjamin Rozak

Kristina Santiago has been called “T” since she was a child, a nickname her parents gave her. Since then, she’s emerged as a formidable force on the basketball court, and is now a freshman forward for the Cal Poly women’s basketball team.

The 6-foot-2, Santa Maria native began playing pick-up games at Cal Poly when she was still in high school, and her familiarity with Cal Poly and her teammates has allowed for a smoother transition from high school to college basketball.

“When I actually got here (to Cal Poly) it was a lot easier because I knew them better and knew the style of play better,” Santiago says.

However, she has seen a large increase in intensity since joining the Mustangs.

“Everything is . a lot more structured and organized – a lot more disciplined,” she explained.

That adjustment hasn’t prevented her from making an immediate impact, though. Having played in 26 of the Mustangs’ 27 contests this season, she’s posted averages of 5.3 points and four rebounds in just 14.7 minutes per game while shooting 46.6 percent from the floor. In a 74-72 overtime loss at first-place UC Santa Barbara on Feb. 16, Santiago had team highs of 19 points and 14 rebounds.

Her 10.9 rebounds-per-40 minutes mark is a team best, and with .62 blocks per game, she is the only freshman in the Big West Conference top 10 in that category, in which she ranks 10th.

However, she originally did not want to attend Cal Poly because of San Luis Obispo’s close proximity to Santa Maria.

“After I made my visit, I just loved it,” Santiago says. “The more I thought about it, the better I figured it would be (to attend Cal Poly). I would be close to my family and friends. It’s far enough, but not too far.”

Santiago, a Righetti High graduate, grew up with basketball on her mind and credits her dad for much of her interest in the sport.

“He was an awesome basketball player,” she says. “I always hear stories from him. We went to the same high school. . So it’s like, he has all of these awards and records. He has always been the one to push me and influence me.”

Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh, who calls Santiago “one of the best athletes” in the program’s history, has nominated her for Big West Freshman of the Year.

Santiago, 18, feels honored but remains humble.

“Awards have never really been my thing,” she says. “I just like to play basketball and have fun. I wouldn’t be too disappointed if I didn’t get it, but of course I’m going to keep working hard.”

When told that Mimnaugh has described her as a “monster” on the court, Santiago was not surprised.

“A lot of my coaches have always described me as that,” she says. “I think it’s just because I pretty much try and do it all – get on the boards, score, run, try and cover all aspects of the game, not just my position.”

A teammate of hers, junior forward Lisa McBride, described “T” as “one of a kind.”

“She brings a lot of fire (to the team) because she has some great moves, great rebounds and great catches that pump the team up,” McBride says.

After battling a few illnesses, including the stomach flu and a shoulder injury that kept her out for a week, Santiago has helped lead the Mustangs later in the season.

With a 54-52 win at third-place UC Riverside on Feb. 27, the fifth-place Mustangs (10-17, 7-7) are still in contention for a first-round bye in the Big West Tournament, which takes place from Wednesday to March 15 in Anaheim.

The upset of the Highlanders broke a four-game losing streak for the Mustangs, who host Long Beach State (8-18, 6-8) at 7 tonight in Mott Gym.

Santiago believes the team needs to “stay healthy” and “keep playing together” to stay in a winning mode.

“I think when we tend to play individually – try to do more one-on-one stuff – that’s when we fall apart as a team,” she says. “When we stick together and everyone is healthy and playing, that’s when we come through with the big wins.”

Although a freshman, Santiago, a kinesiology major, has big plans for the future. She has hopes of playing basketball after college, possibly overseas, but is waiting to see how things go in the next four years.

Coming to the end of her first season as a college basketball player, Santiago has already found a family with the team and forged fond memories at Cal Poly.

“It’s so much fun with the team,” she says. “I’m basically making a new family here and doing all kinds of new stuff – stuff that I would never do if I wasn’t playing basketball.”

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