The path is clear for the top-seeded Cal Poly women’s basketball team to make a run for the NCAA Tournament. With the second, third and fourth seeds gone, the top-seeded Mustangs will take on Long Beach State at the Big West Tournament in Anaheim this Friday at noon.
With a win, the Mustangs will advance to their second straight championship game. UC Davis upset last year’s team in the finals and received a bid in the NCAA Championship tournament, while Cal Poly lost its first game in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament bracket.
Senior forward Kristina Santiago watched last season from the sidelines with a torn ACL, but said she and her teammates learned from their disappointing finish in 2011.
“This team has the potential to win the championship because we have the experience of being there and losing,” she said. “It’s time to bring those experiences together and pull out a championship.”
Santiago worked to return to full strength for her senior season, and it showed when she was named Big West Conference Player of the Year for the second time in three years on Monday. Former Mustang Rachel Clancy won the award while Santiago was injured last season. She led the conference in points per game (23.1), rebounds per game (10.1) and field goal percentage (.558), ranking in the top 25 nationally in all three categories.
In her final game at Mott Gym, Santiago led the Mustangs to a 71-53 victory over Cal State Fullerton on Tuesday, totaling 31 points, nine rebounds and four steals.
Sophomore guard Jonae Ervin led all NCAA Division I players with an assist turnover ratio of 2.89, earning her the Big West Hustle award as well as an honorable mention for the All-Big West squad. Junior guard Kayla Griffin earned second-team honors, and senior guard Ashlee Burns also received an honorable mention from the conference.
Long Beach State, the seventh seed, is one of three teams (No. 5 University of the Pacific, No. 6 UCSB) that upset its first-round opponent on the road Tuesday night. The 49ers beat Cal Poly at home in January, then forfeited a blowout in Mott Gym on Feb. 23 after freshman guard Bianka Balthazar collapsed at half court with 5:11 remaining.
Balthazar was taken to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in an ambulance, where she was treated for dehydration and released the following day. She has not played in a game for the 49ers since the incident.
In the final month of the regular season, Cal Poly played its best basketball, winning 10 of its last 11 games to clinch the top seed and a second straight league championship. The only game the Mustangs lost in that stretch was to UC Davis on March 1; it came with Santiago sitting on the bench with concussion-like symptoms.
Assistant head coach Kerri Nakamoto said it is important the team focuses on one game at a time. Nonetheless, the idea of Cal Poly’s first-ever bid in the NCAA Tournament is in the back of everyone’s mind.
“It would make history,” she said. “It would just mean a lot about this program and where we’re headed, and what we’ve built this program into.”
Nakamoto said the team is determined to improve upon their runner-up finish in last year’s tournament, which no player has forgotten.
Much like Santiago, junior forward Brittany Woodard watched her teammates lose the championship game in Anaheim last season as a redshirt transfer. Now active, Woodard said she looks forward to the opportunity to help Cal Poly conclude a historical season that is two victories away.
“We really just need to play our game from start to finish, without letting up,” she said. “If we do that, there’s nothing stopping us from winning the championship.”
The winner of Cal Poly’s game Friday will play the winner of the other semifinal game between Pacific and UC Santa Barbara at the Honda Center on Saturday at 2 p.m.
The NCAA Division I Championship begins March 17 with 64 schools competing across the country for several weeks in a single-elimination tournament.