Patrick Trautfield

The past two weeks have decidedly breathed new life into the Cal Poly women’s basketball team.

Now comes a crucial three weeks in which the Mustangs – winners of three straight – play four of their final six regular-season Big West Conference games away from Mott Gym. That stretch begins when Cal Poly tips off a three-game road trip at Long Beach State at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“We’re peaking at the right time,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said Monday at a weekly athletics department press conference.

Now is indeed a good time for Cal Poly (8-12, 3-4 Big West) to be on the upswing. Currently sitting in fifth place in the eight-team Big West’s standings, the Mustangs need to finish the regular season as one of the top four seeds in the conference to earn a first-round bye and avoid playing on the first day of the Big West tourney, which runs from March 7 to 10 in Anaheim.

The Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the Big West tourney – which UC Riverside and Cal State Northridge are close to clinching – must win only two games to reach the NCAA Tournament. Only three wins separate the teams Nos. 3 through 8 in the standings, however.

After a 5-12 start that saw multiple players in the rotation go in and out of the lineup with a myriad of injuries, many of those players are back and Cal Poly is reaping the benefits.

Mimnaugh said the team has also been buoyed by the increasing experience of its six freshmen, including point guard Ashlee Stewart.

“When you have people that are coming and going, it’s hard to get some rhythm and continuity,” Mimnaugh said. “I think we’re maturing as a team. We have quite a bit of experience that’s been sidelined. It’s taken a little bit of time to mature, come together and form some chemistry. Right now, it looks like we’re headed in the right direction.”

Much of the team’s apparent redirection can be credited to sophomore forward/center Megan Harrison, who has averaged 26.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game in the last two outings. She was named Big West Co-Player of the Week on Monday.

“I think that her abilities to play with other people have really improved,” Mimnaugh said of Harrison. “She’s always been a tremendous scorer for us. This year after suffering some illness earlier in the season, it was kind of hard for her to get to a place where she was back in strength. She’s come quite a long ways as far as that goes and (is) back in scoring mode. Defensively, she’s been a huge presence for us on the boards. We ask her to be a big rebounder for us.”

Mimnaugh said the 6-foot-1 Harrison is adept at creating mismatches because of her ability to play in the paint as well as along the perimeter.

“It gives it a little bit different twist and makes life challenging for opponents when we have that kind of versatility,” Mimnaugh said. “She’s certainly on pace right now to be considered for all-conference honors. She is one of the best post players in the conference.”

Cal Poly’s lone preseason all-conference pick, senior forward Jessica Eggleston, has been the team’s most consistent player. She leads the Mustangs in points (13.4) and rebounds (7.9) per game and assists (60) and is second in steals (41).

Also giving Cal Poly a lift has been starting junior shooting guard Toni Newman, who returned from a leg stress fracture suffered earlier this season to average 9.0 points a contest in five games back since.

Long Beach State (5-18, 2-7 Big West) is only 4-6 at home this season. The 49ers will likely look to involve Karina Figueroa early and often. The sophomore guard is the team’s lone player to average double-figure scoring (15.3 ppg) despite a .335 field-goal percentage.

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