Mustang News File Photo

Senior guard Jonae Ervin returns for the women’s basketball team after finishing fourth among all Division I players in assist-to-turnover-ratio last season.

Jacob Lauing

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The Cal Poly women’s basketball team claimed its first-ever Big West tournament championship last season and earned a ticket to March Madness for the first time in program history.

And though they lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Penn State, the Mustangs enter the 2013-14 campaign excited for the challenge of reaching the postseason again.

“The team has an idea about how hard that was to get to that place of a championship level,” 17th-year head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “They’re trying to inspire the younger players that aren’t aware.”

Those younger players can look to Molly Schlemer for inspiration.

In her Big West Player of the Year campaign this past season, Schlemer averaged 13.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game during the regular season, while shooting 54.2 percent from the floor, which ranked 10th in the nation.

Schlemer, who was selected to the 2013-14 all-conference preseason team, will reprise her role at center this season.

At guard, Cal Poly returns junior Ariana Elegado and senior Jonae Ervin. Elegado was the Mustangs’ spark last season, averaging 12 points a game. Ervin finished the season fourth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.

“We’ve tried to run some different sets that are going to keep the ball primarily in those hands,” Mimnaugh said. “The other players will have responsibilities on the floor that might be more screening action. Right now we are going to try and put the ball in Ariana and Jonae’s hands as much as we can and let them make decisions.”

That game plan stems from the inexperience filling out the rest of Cal Poly’s lineup.

Maddison Allen and Taryn Garza will occupy both forward sports. Allen — a junior from Brisbane, Australia — played in eight games before opting to redshirt with a wrist injury last year. Garza averaged seven minutes and just over one point per game.

“We’re still a little bit untested at the three and the four position, which will be new players this year,” Mimnaugh said. “Maddie’s probably the most gifted forward, defensively, that we’ve ever had in our program. She moves well. A great shot blocker as well.”

Cal Poly also welcomes four newcomers to the court.

Hannah Gilbert and Mary Kate Evans haven’t ventured far from home, as the two attended Morro Bay High School and Atascadero High School, respectively. Gilbert averaged 17.5 points as a senior, while Evans averaged 19.3 points and notched 13 rebounds en route to All-CIF honors her junior year.

Irvine, Calif. native Sarah Lipton went a combined 96-25 in her four years at Woodbridge High School. Rachel Koehler led her Billings Senior High School team to a fourth-place finish in the Montana championships, earning all-state honors herself along the way.

“We’re real pleased with our freshman class,” Mimnaugh said. “They’re our future. You’re going to see several of them able to step in. Whether they start or get significant minutes, we think they’re going to play quite a few minutes.”

Three of the four freshmen are at least 6 feet tall, while Koehler stands one inch shy at 5-foot-11. In total, seven Mustangs hover over 6 feet.

“We’ll have some good size on the court and, probably, we really need it this year,” Mimnaugh said. “Especially preseason, we’re going against teams that are pretty formidable.”

Cal Poly opens its season Friday against Duquesne in the Maggie Dixon Classic hosted by DePaul. After that, the Mustangs face a slew of powerhouse basketball programs, including No. 3 Stanford and UCLA on the road.

Big West Conference play begins Jan. 8 when the Mustangs host Hawaii.

In the preseason media poll, Cal Poly was selected to repeat as Big West champions this year, with Hawaii and Cal State Northridge occupying the second and third place slots, respectively.

According to Mimnaugh, the Mustangs aren’t championship-ready yet. With inexperience, inconsistencies and holes left from last year’s players, there’s plenty of work to be done, but a return to the dance isn’t out of the question.

“It’s going to be a journey for us to get to that place where we can work like mad women every day, every second we’re on the court,” Mimnaugh said. “If we can get there, then I like our chances to repeat. The expectations are high for the team.”

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