Jefferson P. Nolan
Faith Mimnaugh wasn’t sure if it would ever happen.
But on Saturday it did, as the Mustangs clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history with a 63-49 victory over Pacific in the Big West Conference Tournament final.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” the 16th-year head coach said. “It seems like as old as (the players) are, I’ve been waiting for this opportunity. Sometimes you think it’s never going to happen, that the hard work is never going to pay off. But they believed in each other, and they believed in the dream.”
After a predicted fourth place finish in the Big West coaches and media polls, the 2012-13 Mustangs have defied the odds.
“There’s a lot of grit and grind and toughness from this team,” Mimnaugh said. “(The team) had to formulate their identity this year. (Kristina Santiago) is a great, great player — the best player that ever played at Cal Poly. But I’m glad and proud that (these players) are getting recognition.”
Molly Schlemer, the Big West Player of the Year, was honored as the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Schlemer finished the game with seven points and a season-high 16 rebounds.
“Confidence is what changed two years ago to now,” Schlemer said. “That just comes from my coaches and my team and that they never gave up on me. It’s just amazing for it to all pay off.”
After Schlemer’s 26-point performance in Cal Poly’s semifinal matchup against UC Santa Barbara, the junior center began the first half of play by dominating the Tigers inside the paint.
At halftime, the Mustangs headed to the locker room with a 12-point lead, but as the second half commenced, the Tigers began cut into the Cal Poly advantage.
It was in the early minutes of the second half when the tide changed for the Mustangs. Cal Poly senior Kayla Griffin twisted her knee as she dove to save a ball going out of bounds.
Tears rushing down her face, the team watched its starting forward and leading rebounder hobble away as Griffin was assisted off the court.
The Mustangs are not novice to injuries this season. Earlier in the season, senior Brittany Woodard suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) against the Tigers in a regular season matchup.
“I just kept saying that we have to play for Kayla,” Schlemer said. “The same thing happened to Brittany too. We saw (Kayla) go down, and I just said ‘We have to play for Kayla like we played for Brittany.’”
And play they did.
Redshirt sophomore Ariana Elegado finished the game with a team-high 22 points as she led Cal Poly past Pacific.
“My teammates told me to keep shooting,” Elegado said. “We feed off each other.”
With one minute to play, Cal Poly sported a 10 point lead, forcing the Tigers to foul constantly before the Mustangs ultimately came out on top.
“We had to battle the entire way,” Mimnaugh said. “We’re both excellent programs, and (Pacific) deserves a ton of credit of what they’ve accomplished this year.”
The Mustangs were 24-of-30 from the free-throw line and dominated the boards by retrieving 46 rebounds. Pacific was held to 5-of-11 from the free-throw stripe and had 28 total rebounds.
“To build a program to this level … it’s a lot of work,” Mimnaugh said. “A lot more than I thought it’d take. When you keep wondering if it’s ever going to happen, that’s when the real satisfaction takes place.”
The Mustangs learn their NCAA tournament seed on Monday at 4 p.m. when the brackets are announced. The team will then travel to a first-round game the following week.