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Paul Pierce. Kevin Garnett. Ray Allen.
LeBron James. Dwayne Wade. Chris Bosh.
Jonae Ervin. Molly Schlemer. Ariana Elegado.
The big three: It’s a term that’s been coined before, when three dynamic forces unite and relentless dominance ensues.
The Cal Poly women’s basketball team has a trio of its own this season, with guards Ervin and Elegado, along with center Schlemer combining to score 62 percent of the Mustangs’ points.
Schlemer, Elegado and Ervin rank first, second and third on the team in points per game, respectively. Ervin has twice the points of the player who ranks fourth.
Let’s be clear, though. Besides the three girls, Cal Poly has plenty of talent. And the Mustangs’ role players have strongly contributed to Cal Poly’s 5-4 start in a daunting non-conference schedule.
Either Ervin, Schlemer or Elegado lead in all but one positive statistical category, and the supremacy of these three can’t be denied.
Together, they are largely responsible for the Mustangs’ success, but each player brings something unique to the court, a cog of the three-part machine that drives Cal Poly.
“We’re all very passionate, and we have the biggest hearts,” Ervin said. “We’re very confident, and we know how to play well with each other. The coaches expect a lot out of us.”
This is the story of the Big Three.
Each player’s chapter is labeled with an adjective teammates used to describe her.
Now in her fifth season at Cal Poly, Ervin is the longest-tenured Mustang on the court.
She’s started at least 10 games in each of her past three seasons, but Ervin’s success and longevity haven’t come without setbacks.
Her knee will click or pop every so often.
Ervin’s knocking on wood that this will be her healthiest season, and as Cal Poly’s oldest player, she’s had to adjust to her new status as a leader.
“There’s a lot of heavy weight on my shoulders,” Ervin said. “Sometimes I just look at it in a positive way, like it’s actually a good thing that they’re expecting all these things out of me because they know I can do it and I know I can do it. Having all those expectations makes me feel like I’m actually one of the top players.”
Some of those expectations come from her position. At point guard, she controls the tempo and, through the first eight games, averaged more minutes per game than any of her teammates.
“I feel a lot of pressure, just because I do have the ball in my hands a lot,” Ervin said. “I know a lot of people feed off my energy and if I’m down, the whole team is down, so I’ve learned that.”
Ervin’s assists are what truly set her apart, both at Cal Poly and on a national level. She finished fourth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio last year, dishing out 120 assists while only turning the ball over 46 times.
Some athletes want nothing to do with numbers, but Ervin has no shame in admitting she looks at her own stats, analyzing them against nationally-ranked players to measure her performance.
“I always look for improvements or what I want to do,” Ervin said. “I know I’ve been in the top ranks for assists-to-turnover and I still want to be up there. It’s a new year so I should obviously be better at it.”
Health permitting, Ervin’s basketball career won’t come to an end this year, and she’s preparing accordingly.
Ervin and assistant coach Kari Duperron watch film every so often, gauging her progress and skillset compared to point guards in the WNBA.
Despite her professional aspirations, Ervin remains focused on the present. Her 43 assists this season lead the Mustangs by a long shot, and she’ll be needed — whether her knee is clicking or not.
“Jonae brings a lot to the team,” Elegado said. “She’s just really mentally tough as a player and as a person. You can tell that she really loves to win.”
At 6-foot-5, Schlemer is used to standing high above her peers.
But Schlemer’s biggest competition may be a person she knows pretty well: her former self.
Schlemer had a career year last season, averaging 15.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in conference play. Shooting 54.2 percent from the floor, she finished the season 10th in the nation en route to Big West Conference Player of the Year honors.
“There’s a lot of pressure with winning Big West Player of the Year junior year, because everyone’s like, ‘OK. You should do it again. Let’s see it,’” Schlemer said. “So I’m trying not to focus on that. I’m trying to focus on how I can help my team the most.”
Selected to the preseason all-conference team, Schlemer enters her senior year as the top dog, with a bullseye on her back. Through nine games, none of her teammates come close to the center’s 97 rebounds.
“Everybody knows about her scoring, but what she’s improved on the most, in my opinion, is her rebounding,” head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “When she rebounds, we can run and we’re way more fun to watch and more successful.”
Still, Schlemer feels the stress that comes with her achievements and her shared leadership role on the team.
“She gets very easily frustrated, as all of us do,” Ervin said. “Especially because we know a lot of people look up to us, and if we’re making a lot of mistakes, we get frustrated.”
But Schlemer wasn’t always the player she is today.
Though she leads Cal Poly with 16.4 points per game and is shooting 51 percent from the field, her development as a player has been a process.
It remains to be seen how Schlemer can top last season.
But her goals for the next three months revolve, once again, around her team rather than herself. In the quest to defend Cal Poly’s Big West title, Schlemer hopes to better herself as a player, but mainly to help her team win.
And that team relies heavily on Schlemer, who leads the Mustangs in points and rebounds on a day-to-day basis.
“I try not to look at the stats so much, because if you get caught up in that, it really messes you up if you don’t step up to all of the things that it says you are,” Schlemer said. “It’s nice to know that you’re a really good basketball player, and it’s nice to know that you’re playing with really good basketball players too.”
In a line of 26 legs, 24 are still.
It’s the pregame national anthem in Mott Athletics Center and, with every player lined up shoulder-to-shoulder facing the flag, Elegado’s legs rock back and forth, flexing and bending as her head bobs to the beat.
She thrives off energy.
“I like getting really excited before our games,” Elegado said. “I try to keep everyone positive. I just really love how energized I am as a person. I just try to feed my players off that. Energy is really important to our team.”
“She gets really crazy about the little things,” Schlemer said.
As freshman, Elegado and Schlemer arrived at Cal Poly together. And with big names like Kristina Santiago, the two were invisible people on the team, as Elegado puts it.
Since that year, Elegado has developed into Cal Poly’s premier sharpshooter.
“Ariana in particular is somebody that creates so much for us,” Mimnaugh said. “Her great penetration ability, you have to play her because she’s such a dynamic three-point shooter. She’s able to kind of generate some offense for some of the other players on the court.”
But Elegado struggled early on this season, shooting 23 percent from long range in Cal Poly’s first four games.
“From that point on, I just put myself in the gym,” Elegado said. “Listening to music, I had no one in the gym. I was just shooting like 500 three’s a day. My coaches helped me out, gave me confidence.”
Elegado has improved that number to 40 percent (12 for 30) over the past five games, while also leading Cal Poly with an 88 percent free throw percentage on the season. Her 15.3 points per game are second to Schlemer’s.
“I’m trying to attack more to the basket,” Elegado said. “Last year, I felt like I settled for a lot of three’s and I was a three-point shooter, but this year I feel like I’m trying to get to the line more, still trying to set up players, still trying to get Molly her 20 points, let Jonae drive. I’m just trying to be aggressive on offense, keep the energy flowing on the court and keep everyone positive.”
As Elegado finishes up this season, she’ll have a decision to make. She’s athletically a junior, but academically a senior at Cal Poly, so she has the option to play one more season as a Mustang or graduate and move on.
It’s hard to imagine where Cal Poly would be without the Big Three.
Statistically, no other group of players comes close to the amount of offensive production they provide. And on a more personal level, the three girls share a bond outside the gym that translates to their chemistry in it.
“We love each other,” Schlemer said. “It’s really nice to be successful with girls that you care about so much because you see them happy, and it makes you happy to see them happy … It’s probably the dream position to be in to have two point guards to be on such the same page as you. I’m really lucky to be so close with them.”
With Ervin’s consistency and assists, Schlemer’s big presence in the post and Elegado’s shooting abilities, all three contribute to the Mustangs’ success.
The leading scorer will change from day to day, but with those three in the lineup, backed by talented role players, Cal Poly is a tough team to beat.
“At the end of it, I just want to win,” Ervin said. “If it’s (Schlemer) scoring or me scoring or Ari, whatever it takes to win, that’s what I want to get done for the team.”