After two narrow losses to conference rivals Long Beach State and Cal State Northridge, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team looks to stay alive in the Big West with games against Pacific and UC Davis this weekend.
Winning the next two games is crucial for the Mustangs, who can easily climb up the standings to share the lead with Northridge and UC Irvine. Head coach Faith Mimnaugh is optimistic that her team can pull through and remain contenders.
“Every game in the Big West is critical for us,” Mimnaugh said. In this division, “anyone can beat anyone.”
Cal Poly will face Pacific on Thursday night, where the focus will be containing an athletic squad with solid defense led by guard Erica McKenzie. Mimnaugh stressed the importance of using a press defense to stop Pacific’s ability to shoot three-pointers effectively.
“We have to turn up the heat on McKenzie,” Mimnaugh said.
On the other side of the court, Cal Poly will be looking to penetrate aggressively with forwards as well as the guards. If Pacific decides to double team star senior forward Kristina Santiago, the rest of the Mustangs will have to contribute in order to keep up with Pacific’s high-scoring attack. Regardless of the defense Cal Poly encounters, Santiago’s presence inside will give her supporting cast opportunities to knock down jump-shots.
“The opposition will always try to take Santiago out of the game,” Mimnaugh said. “We’ve had different players step up to take good shots.”
Santiago knows the double-team is highly likely, and in these scenarios, it is important to be a role player by setting screens and making good passes to the open player.
“My coaches have confidence in me to find the open players and get everyone else involved,” Santiago said.
Moving the ball around the perimeter will be key to beating UC Davis on Saturday night. In last season’s Big West tournament loss to UC Davis, Cal Poly had difficulties moving the ball quickly against the Aggies’ tough half-court press defense.
In order to win Saturday’s game, the Mustangs will have to maintain their own intense defensive pressure, and polish their rebounding skills.
One key to success will be “limiting the opposition to one shot,” Mimnaugh said.
This past week, the stress in practice has been placed on defensive positioning techniques and maintaining a solid focus for the entire game. Santiago said her team has been practicing hard on its defense after losing last weekend.
“Making crucial stops has been a big part of determining the outcome of the games,” Santiago said. “We want to work on staying poised under pressure.”
Practicing against the athleticism that Cal Poly will confront this weekend and learning from the close losses last week will act as training methods to improve all aspects of the Mustangs’ game.
“We’ve had some spirited practices this week,” Mimnaugh said.
The narrow losses to Northridge and Long Beach keep Cal Poly confident that the Big West title is not out of reach.
The Mustangs held their own in last Thursday’s game against conference leader Northridge, where they had a 10 point lead with nearly 14 minutes left in the game. However, the Matadors quickly regained lost ground with two three-point shots in the next minute.
A resurgence by Santiago and the rest of the Cal Poly offense brought the lead back up to seven points with 7:33 left in the game.
Northridge stayed focused, and tied the game at 76 with two-and-a half minutes left. They scored the winning points with a layup with only 30 seconds left in the game to make the score 78-77. A final free throw clinched the game with the score 79-77 in favor of the Matadors.
The following Saturday, Cal Poly faced an equally difficult Long Beach State squad.
Despite Santiago’s ninth double-double of the season, the Mustangs could not muster enough offensive power to counter the 49er’s attack. They trailed by one at halftime, and kept the margin small in the first five minutes of the second half, but Long Beach took control of the game after a 10-4 run that left the score at 54-47 with twelve minutes left in the game.
Cal Poly fought back to take a one point lead after scoring eight straight points. With just under 10 minutes left, the score was 55-54.
The score stayed close for the remainder of the game, with the 49ers leading by three with one minute left. Despite Cal Poly’s best efforts to climb back, Long Beach made free throws down the stretch and cemented a victory with a score of 74-67.