In her final night playing in Mott Gym, Kristina Santiago scored 31 points and led the top-seeded Mustangs to a 71-53 victory over Cal State Fullerton in the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament. For the third consecutive year, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team will head to the semifinals of the tournament where they will face Long Beach State, the seventh seed, at noon on Friday.
“Seeing all the support here at home in front of my family and friends was really exciting,” Santiago said. “It was an exciting way to wrap up my career here winning our first playoff game.”
Santiago’s hot hand gave the Mustangs an 18-point lead at halftime as she had 20 points and three steals. The Mustangs expanded their lead to 24 midway through the second half, but turnovers and missed shots allowed the Titans to inch their way back into the game. Fullerton’s Megan Richardson, who was originally recruited by head coach Faith Mimnaugh, had two points during the first 28 minutes, but then she came alive.
While shutting down Richardson was Mimnaugh’s stated objective going into the game, the Titan guard racked up 11 points in the last 11 minutes. Fullerton narrowed the Mustang lead to 10 points with 4:53 to go, but redshirt freshman Ariana Elegado drove into the lane for an easy two points and was fouled. She made the ensuing free-throw to halt Fullerton’s 16-2 run.
“We said that we were going to stay home on Richardson,” Mimnaugh said. “If they’re able to make a layup on us because of it, well, we’d rather give up two than three.”
Elegado played only 19 minutes but was the Mustangs second leading scorer with 14 points, she also had three rebounds and four assists.
“(Elegado) was awesome,” Mimnaugh said. “She’s a great decision maker, and she knows how to come off a pick-and-roll. She was brilliant on the court, and everybody in the stands is just eager to see her develop.”
Jonae Ervin, the nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio, uncharacteristically had four turnovers and just two assists.
The Mustangs had 19 total turnovers and only nine steals, the Titans led Cal Poly in both categories with just 15 turnovers and 12 steals.
Cal Poly shot 51.9 percent on the night including hitting four of nine shots from long range. Senior guard Christine Martin hit three of five shots from behind the 3-point line as the Titans attempted to close down on Santiago inside, leaving Martin open shots.
She had 12 points, three assists and six rebounds.
In the other Big West quarterfinal games, the lower seeds defeated the home team leaving Cal Poly, Long Beach State, Pacific and UC Santa Barbara in the semifinals. The winner of Cal Poly versus Long Beach and Pacific versus UC Santa Barbara will face each other in the Big West Championship on Saturday with a bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing on the court in the tournament,” Elegado said. “It’s going to be amazing playing together on the court for our five seniors.”
The Mustangs lost to Long Beach in mid-January before rattling off nine straight wins, including a 68-41 dismantling of the 49ers in Mott Gym a month later. Santiago had 29 points while Ashlee Burns and Elegado chipped in for 12 points each.
Stephan Teodosescu and J.J. Jenkins contributed to this article