Photo by Ryan Sidarto-Mustang Daily
Photo by Ryan Sidarto-Mustang Daily

Junior forward Kristina Santiago has established herself as a force in the Big West. While other players are struggling to get back into the flow, Santiago is averaging 16 points per game through the team’s first three games.

The junior guard has established herself as a relentless scorer in the paint and has people speculating about this year’s Big West player of the year honors, despite recovering from a back injury.

Yet, she thinks she can play better.

“I don’t necessarily think that I have been playing as well as I can (this season),” Santiago said at Monday’s press conference.

In a 56 – 47 loss against Big Ten squad Illinois this Saturday afternoon at Mott Gym, Santiago led her team at the Courtyard by Marriott San Luis Obispo Holiday Beach Classic in Mott Gym.

“It wasn’t pretty, but we did what we needed to do to come away with a victory,” Illinois head coach Jolette Law said in a release. “I’m proud of the team for not getting rattled when things weren’t going our way.”

Aided by two Santiago layups, Cal Poly (2-2) stampeded to an 11-2 advantage after seven minutes of action. The Fighting Illini returned with a 17-9 run to slice Cal Poly’s lead to a single point and Smith recorded two of her 14 points shortly before halftime with a pair of free throws that secured Illinois (5-1) a 23-22 lead at the break.

Cal Poly reclaimed its lead to open the second half, and a three-pointer from senior guard Brittany Asplund stretched the Mustang advantage to 41-34 with 10 minutes remaining.

Cal Poly led Illinois by three points with just over five minutes left in the game, but the Fighting Illini pieced together a late-game comeback sparked by a three-point play from senior Whitney Toone to tie the game at 47. Fabiola Josil recorded back-to-back steals that merited four more points to cap Illinois’ closing run, putting the game at 51-47 with just over four minutes to play.

The Fighting Illini added a Simpson three-pointer with under two minutes to play to put the game out of reach for the Mustangs.

Leading for most of the game, Illinois found new life in the final stretch of the game, outscoring the Mustangs 22-6 to close.

Strong defense was a theme of Saturday’s contest.

The Mustangs were held to a 29.3 shooting percentage, a 23.1 figure from beyond the three-point arc and their lowest scoring output of the season. Cal Poly failed to convert a basket within the final five minutes of the game. Illinois boasted eight blocks, a career-high six coming from center Jenna Smith, and eight steals against Cal Poly. Illinois’ Fabiola Josil tied her career-high of three steals for the second consecutive game.

Offense on the other hand, came at a premium.

Santiago led the Mustangs in scoring with 13 points. Junior guard Rachel Clancy came right behind with 10.

Santiago and and Clancy recorded eight rebounds apiece for Cal Poly, facing a Big Ten Conference opponent for the first and only time since falling against Iowa on Nov. 21, 1981, 64-57.

Senior forward Becky Tratter and Asplund — who sunk all five of her free throw attempts — finished with eight points apiece. Senior guard Ashlee Stewart tallied a game-high five assists for Cal Poly.

Two Mustangs featured in their first games as Cal Poly players against Illinois. Sophomore guard Christine Martin — who redshirted last season after transferring from San Jose State — finished with six points, while freshman Kayla Griffin played six minutes.

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