Junior guard Ariana Elegado is second on the team averaging more than 15 points per game entering conference play.
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The Cal Poly women’s basketball team was selected by the media as the preseason favorite to win the Big West Conference this year. The defending Big West tournament champions finished in second place in last year’s regular season standings behind only Pacific, which departed for the West Coast Conference this year.
Cal Poly enters league play with three of their strongest players from last year — senior center Molly Schlemer, junior guard Ariana Elegado and senior guard Jonae Ervin.
Schlemer was the standout of the preseason, averaging 17.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. Though she is experiencing her best year of her career, the Santa Maria native says she can do more.
“The stats are nice to look at,” she said. “But I could have done way better in some of the games we’ve played.”
Elegado also shined in the preseason, averaging 15.5 points and 4.6 assists per game.
Ervin was ranked No.1 in the nation last year in assist-to-turnover ratio with 2.67 assists per giveaway. She was also awarded last year’s Big West Best Hustle award, and has accumulated a balanced stat line this year averaging 11 points, five rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game.
Cal Poly had a difficult set of opposition in the preseason, including a game at then-No.4 Stanford. The Mustangs lost seven of their 13 preseason games entering conference play and are 7-7 overall.
Although the non-conference season resulted in a sub-.500 record, the competition has provided Cal Poly with the tools for success in Big West play, Schlemer said.
The Mustangs were out-rebounded in six of their preseason games, which Schlemer says the team, including herself, must improve on.
“If I’m not getting a rebound, then how am I supposed to expect my 5’2’’ guards to get a rebound?” she said.
Head coach Faith Mimnaugh also called on the team’s freshmen to step up this season by using a rotating lineup heading into conference play.
“We need our current freshmen to play as if they’re juniors or seniors,” Mimnaugh said.
With the absence of Pacific in this year’s conference schedule, Hawaii, a team predicted to finish in second place in the preseason rankings, will pose the biggest threat this season, said Mimnaugh.
“Hawaii, in my opinion, maybe should’ve been put ahead of us as far as what they brought back,” Mimnaugh said.
But the Mustangs opened their Big West season with a come-from-behind win against the Warriors on Wednesday in Honolulu. Ervin scored a career-high 37 points and tied her career-high in rebounding with 10 boards to lead Cal Poly to a 78-74 overtime win.
Cal Poly will host Central Coast rival UC Santa Barbara on Saturday, looking to remain at the top of the Big West standings.
UC Santa Barbara, which went 5-8 in the preseason, will look for revenge on Saturday after being eliminated by Cal Poly in the 2013 Big West tournament.
UC Irvine, which had a 7-7 preseason record, and Long Beach State — the team expected to finish third in the conference according to media polls — will also be threats.
Still, Mimnaugh believes the team is prepared to compete for another championship.
“We’ve had a really good week of practice,” she said. “The team is fired up.”
If the Mustangs can withstand the pressure of the preseason favorite label and make it into the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row, the team hopes for a better result in the national tournament.
Cal Poly’s Big West tournament championship earned the team an automatic bid into the 2013 NCAA Tournament, but it was quickly eliminated in the first round by Penn State.
First, the team must focus on its Big West slate of games, but the team has what it takes to return to the big dance, according to Mimnaugh.
“I think we have a good chance to be repeat champions,” Mimnaugh said.