Christine Martin averages eight points per game mostly coming off the bench. -Max Zeronian/Mustang Daily
Christine Martin averages eight points per game mostly coming off the bench. -Max Zeronian/Mustang Daily

The Cal Poly women’s basketball team — the same one that lost seven straight games in December — won its seventh straight game against UC Riverside on Saturday.

Cal Poly (13-12, 9-3) looks poised to defend its 2011 Big West league championship, playing its best basketball at the most critical point in the season.

“We’re just starting to gel more,” junior forward Brittany Woodard said. “We’re more comfortable, and we’re starting to play with a championship-like mentality.”

With four games remaining in Big West Conference play, the Mustangs trail CSU Northridge (16-10, 10-3) atop the standings by half a game.

Come Thursday, the Mustangs will host Long Beach State (11-14 , 6-6) followed by the first-place Knights on Saturday, both in Mott Gym. The Mustangs lost close games to both schools on a road trip in January, but they haven’t lost since.

“This is a huge week for us,” Woodard said. “At Northridge, they were all so hyped when they beat us; you don’t forget things like that.”

Cal Poly will play at least one game without breakout sophomore guard Jonae Ervin, whose assist/turnover ratio of 3.38 ranks first among NCAA Division I players.

Ervin suffered a sprained ankle during practice on Monday, the severity of which has not been released by team officials. In her absence, freshman guard Ariana Elegado is expected to receive more minutes against Long Beach State.

The Saturday night showdown against Northridge will be senior night for five Mustang players — including senior forward Kristina Santiago, who helped transform Cal Poly into a perennial Big West contender in her five-year career.

Santiago understands this is her final stretch as a Mustang, but said she and her teammates are excited to make her farewell season a huge one.

“We definitely have the talent and ability to be good, it’s just getting everyone together on the same page,” she said. “Once we’re together, I really think we can be an unstoppable team.”

Santiago broke the school record for career rebounds last month, and with 49 points over her final four regular season games, she will also become the Mustangs’ all-time scoring leader.

“It’s been a long road but it’s really exciting wrapping up my career here,” she said at a press conference Monday, where she was announced Big West Player of the Week for the fourth time this season. “Since my freshman year, the whole program has elevated its game and the level we play at.”

Santiago expressed gratitude to her teammates and coaching staff for helping her accomplish so many things, but she said there is still one thing neither she nor the program have earned: a Big West Championship and subsequent bid in the NCAA Division I Championship tournament.

Santiago leads the Big West in scoring (22.7 points per game), rebounding (9.9 per game) and field goal percentage (55.6 percent).

According to assistant head coach Kerri Nakamoto — who recruited Santiago as a senior out of Righetti High School in Santa Maria — the superstar known by coaches and teammates as “T” has made an impact far beyond statistics.

“She really wanted to be a part of making history,” Nakamoto said. “She really has helped bring this program to being recognized nationally and being respected on the West Coast in general.”

Seniors Ashlee Burns, Christine Martin, Abby Bloetscher and junior Ariel Gregersen — who is graduating early — will join Santiago in a pregame celebration on Saturday before a 4 p.m. tipoff against Northridge.

“The girls are excited at the opportunity to get a win against them, especially on our home floor being senior week,” Nakamoto said. “These games are valuable for us in our standings.”

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