The Cal Poly women’s basketball team departed for Anaheim on Tuesday night and will have the luxury of not playing until Thursday afternoon.
As the No. 3 seed among eight teams, the Mustangs will play at noon Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Big West Conference Tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center. Because its game is the first Thursday, Cal Poly (14-13, 9-5 Big West) will get an hour before tip-off to warm up, more than the traditional 30 minutes teams get.
Cal Poly senior forward and two-time All-Big West first-team selection Jessica Eggleston said Monday that the bye the Mustangs earned – largely by winning nine of their last 10 games – is a “huge benefit.”
“It’s really hard playing on a new court and playing for a long stretch of time,” Eggleston said. “It gets harder and harder each day comes. We’ll have an advantage whoever we play because we’ll have more time to make ourselves better. It plays in our favor. I wish we could have gotten the second seed.”
The Nos. 1 and 2 seeds – UC Riverside and UC Santa Barbara – need only win two games this weekend to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said Monday that she would be least surprised if the Mustangs had to face sixth-seeded Long Beach State or seventh-seeded UC Irvine in the quarterfinals.
“They’re all different,” Mimnaugh said. “(No. 8 seed) Pacific is definitely a 3-point-oriented team. That would be our main focus. We play all man-to-man (defense) against them. We have great respect for their 3-point shooting. As far as Irvine goes, they’re probably the scrappiest team in the conference, a little bit undersized in the post. Long Beach State, when we played them, they absolutely killed us on the boards. They’re huge. If I had to place my bets, I’d say that we’re either going to play Long Beach or Irvine.”
Cal Poly freshman guard Tamara Wells said Monday that the Mustangs’ recent hot streak has had as much to do with hard-nosed practices as it did players returning from injuries that contributed to a 5-12 start.
“Our run just came from constant competition in practice,” Wells said. “That’s what really helped us win eight games in a row. The games really weren’t that hard because the practices were much harder.”
Wells said the eight-game winning streak changed the team’s identity in the eyes of conference opponents.
“Anybody on our team will tell you we’re the team to beat,” Wells said. “After an eight-game winning streak, we have the target on our back.”
Wells said the team focuses on one game at a time, but does consider the possibility of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re definitely always talking about it,” Wells said. “We’re here. We’ve got the opportunity. We want to seize the moment. We know it’s a big deal.”
Wells is part of a deep, talented freshmen class featuring six players who combined to average 19.4 points per game during the regular season. At the forefront of that group, though, was power forward Bria Fields, who has been out recently with an injury. It is uncertain if Fields, who averages 8.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in only 18.2 minutes, will play in Anaheim.
Mimnaugh said she had “no doubt” that Fields would have been named Big West Freshman of the Year if she had been healthy for more than 19 regular-season games.
Wells said not just the freshmen crop, but the whole team, has been working most defensively on its pressure.
“Defensively, we’ve always been preaching hands-up and being active,” Wells said. “Now we have to go to a zone, which we weren’t planning on at the beginning of the year. After losing Sparkle (Anderson), we noticed we didn’t have the speed and a couple other people got injured, so we played smart and went back to a zone.”
Anderson, who began the season as the team’s starting point guard for the fourth consecutive year, suffered an ACL injury in November. She will return with a medical redshirt next season.
But since losing seven straight following Anderson’s injury, the Mustangs have gelled and found a rotation that works – particularly on defense.
Cal Poly leads the Big West in steals per game (11.1) – including the individual leader in junior shooting guard Toni Newman (3.0 spg) – and 3-point percentage defense (.256).
The Mustangs struggle, however, on the offensive end with both turnovers per game (21.6) and field-goal percentage (.389).
But the formula of canceling out those numbers with lock-down defense on their own part has worked recently for the Mustangs.
And that’s just fine by Eggleston.
“Our long-term goal is to win a championship,” she said. “We’re not looking forward to the Saturday game. We’re taking it one game at a time because we know anything can happen any day. We know we can make it to the championship and win it.”