Brian De Los Santos
With 24 seconds on the clock, head coach Faith Mimnaugh called a timeout and looked to her bench.
“Brittany, Kayla, you’re going in,” she yelled.
Neither Brittany Woodard nor Kayla Griffin had any idea what was going on. The two had fallen victim to season-ending knee injuries and both had to sit out of what would end up being an 85-55 loss to third-seeded Penn State in the first round of the women’s NCAA tournament in Baton Rouge, La.
But after the two helped in a myriad of ways during one of the most historic women’s basketball seasons to date, this game was too historic to leave them out of the box score.
Dumbfounded, the two entered the game for an inbounds pass. Seconds later, they left the court in tears.
“I know she really just wanted us to be able to say all of our hard work had paid off and we ‘played’ in the NCAA tournament,” Griffin said. “She always puts players first above anything else and she knew how much it meant to us, so it was really heartfelt and touching. We’re just so fortunate to have a coach like that, not many coaches would do something like that.”
Woodard and Griffin were just a handful of contributors who led the Mustangs to places the program’s never seen in 2012-13. After going 6-5 through nonconference play, Mimnaugh rallied her players to ride a lightning-in-a-bottle 13-5 run through conference play, ending up with a No. 2 seed as the Mustangs walked into the Big West tournament.
They kept it rolling, posting two double-digit wins over UC Santa Barbara and Pacific to grab the team’s first-ever tournament championship and NCAA tournament berth.
“When we look back on it, we’re going to be able to say we were the first team to ever do this,” Griffin said. “That is the coolest thing we could ever imagine.”
But for most of it, that success became bittersweet for Griffin and Woodard. Woodard went down in the middle of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and was forced to watch the success from the bench.
“I’ve been crying so much this year,” Woodard said. “I knew my season was over after I tore my ACL.”
Griffin suffered the same fate. In the Big West tournament championship, she went down with a knee injury — sidelining her for one of the biggest games in program history.
Both Woodard and Griffin planned to suit up in their Cal Poly uniforms for the game against Penn State. But neither — Woodard being one month out of surgery and Griffin having suffered her injury one week ago — thought they’d see the court.
But Mimnaugh did.
“We wanted to make sure they were put in position that were going to be safe, but I wanted to recognize their efforts in helping Cal Poly make history and get it to its first NCAA game,” Mimnaugh said. “They’re a huge part of us making it there with their huge contributions throughout the year and to be able to do that for them was something I wanted to do.”
Molly Schlemer added her own contributions as well during the course of the season. After earning Big West Player of the Year and Big West tournament MVP honors, she finished with a game-high 24 points and five rebounds against the Nittany Lions. But when it came down to it, Schlemer and the Mustangs couldn’t match Penn State’s depth in the post.
“It felt like an unfair wrestling match, they had five guys on the tag team and Molly had to stay in the entire game,” Mimnaugh said with a laugh. “She did a fabulous job and good things are in store for her. She continues to improve, but she had her hands full with big bodies and she put her whole heart out there, so I was real proud of her.”
What Mimnaugh is even more proud of, though, is the way the season turned out, she said. The championship run, the NCAA tournament berth, most of the team did its best to take it all in as it happened.
For some players, it’s difficult to describe.
“It was just the coolest thing ever,” Woodard said. “Everyone keeps asking me, but it’s hard to put in a couple of sentences. It’s a big deal just to have Cal Poly on your chest and bring Cal Poly’s name all the way to Baton Rouge.”
Mimnaugh is eyeing a comeback. She’s hoping the underclassmen on the team can step up and repeat the success of this team. She’ll have Schlemer returning, but won’t have seniors such as Woodard or Griffin. Regardless, there’s inspiration to return to the NCAA tournament again, she said.
“The taste of success is very appealing,” Mimnaugh said.