Cal Poly’s second-lowest point total of the season proved to be enough to earn them sole possession of the number one spot in the Big West as the Mustangs (16-8, 9-3 Big West) defeated UC Riverside (11-14, 8-4) 58-51 Saturday night in Mott Gym.
“While it was kind of ugly basketball, it proved to be effective today,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said.
After the Mustangs became top dog in the conference with a win against UC Davis earlier this month, a loss at Long Beach State forced them into a tie for the top spot in the Big West with only four games remaining in the regular season.
Mimnaugh said after reviewing game tape of the first meeting between the two teams, the Mustangs would look to exploit UC Riverside’s aggressiveness. Trying to get some of the Highlanders’ effective scorers into foul trouble became the Mustangs’ game plan.
The Mustangs’ strategy resulted in a slow start. It took six minutes for either team to score double figures.
“I’m a really fast-paced person. I love running and the fast break,” said Big West leading scorer Kristina Santiago who put up 21 points against the Highlanders. “So when the game is slowed down, I’m like ‘Let’s go, pump it up, let’s run.’ It affects the momentum more than anything.”
UC Riverside committed six fouls in the first four minutes of the game, giving the Mustangs more opportunities to get points from the foul stripe.
“In the first half, almost every possession we were walking to the free-throw line and that was our game plan, to just get to the free-throw line as early as possible,” said junior guard Rachel Clancy.
Cal Poly struggled in the middle of the first half when Santiago was out of the game, but after she re-entered in the last five minutes of the half, the Mustangs never trailed again.
Cal Poly led 31-26 at the end of the first half with three UC Riverside starters at three fouls each.
Santiago said the Mustang coaches were targeting specific Highlanders to attack.
“We were definitely trying to attack the players in foul trouble,” she said.
The pace of the game increased right from the start of the second half with 11 points between the two teams in the first two and a half minutes.
Santiago made up for her lack of scoring in the first half by scoring on the team’s first three attempts out of the break, including a three-pointer as time expired on the shot clock. The three was the first of Santiago’s career.
“My mindset was a little different this game because I wasn’t getting those crazy double teams, those crazy triple teams,” said Santiago, who recorded her seventh double-double of the season. “If I’m open I’m going to be confident and shoot it.”
Highlander starting forward Rhaya Neabors fouled out after two back-to-back fouls with 14 minutes left to play.
“You rarely see anyone foul out that early in a game, and she is a big player for them,” Clancy said.
Coach Mimnaugh said she was proud of the defensive effort her team put forth, getting a win despite a shooting percentage of only 32 percent.
The Mustangs took a seven-point lead into the last two and a half minutes to play and were able to keep the ball away from the Highlanders with two important offensive rebounds, which ate up more than a minute at the end of regulation.
Even after the first offensive rebound, UC Riverside chose not to intentionally foul to give themselves a chance to win and keep the first place spot away from the Mustangs.
Mimnaugh said the last four games, including three road games, will be difficult ones for the Mustangs, but next week, they will be able to slow down a little.
“Next week will be good for us, we only have the one game. It will be good for us to get a little bit more of us in, because this time of season you are preparing for the opponent all the time, and sometimes you lose a little bit about your crispness about what you’re doing,” she said.
UC Riverside will have three home games to try and regain the top spot in the conference.