Ryan Chartrand

Never before has the Cal Poly women’s basketball team gotten off to a 6-2 start in conference play.

The Mustangs can do just that, though, when they host UC Riverside in a Big West Conference showdown at Mott Gym at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Even though the back-to-back, reigning Big West Tournament champion Highlanders (7-11, 5-2 Big West) are without senior center Kemie Nkele, the 2006-07 Big West Player of the Year, their stingy defense could lead them to another successful postseason run.

“They’re still a really strong team,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “They may not be the same powerhouse they have been, but despite that loss (of Nkele), they’re still very, very talented.”

Nkele averaged team highs of 16.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game before succumbing to a season-ending knee injury Dec. 16.

In her absence, UC Riverside has fielded a shortened rotation in which no one after its top six scorers averages 10 minutes per contest.

The Highlanders’ top-heavy lineup shouldn’t hinder their progress, though, Mimnaugh said.

“(UC Riverside head coach John Margaritis) has traditionally kept a tight rotation, even in the (Big West) championship years,” she said.

Junior guard Seyram Gbewonyo leads the rest of the Highlanders with 13.5 points per game, but shoots worse than 40 percent from the floor while playing a conference-leading 34.8 minutes per outing.

No one else averages double-figure scoring for the Highlanders, who have won five of their past seven games thanks largely to their efforts on the defensive end.

They lead the Big West in field-goal percentage defense by holding opponents to just 40.3-percent shooting from the floor.

Although the Mustangs (8-12, 5-2 Big West) lead the conference in rebounding, pulling down 39 boards per contest, Mimnaugh expressed concerns about matching the Highlanders’ size advantage. UC Riverside starts three 6-footers, meaning that one will probably match up with one of Cal Poly’s smaller guards.

“They’re really big and really athletic,” Mimnaugh said. “It’s difficult to match their size in those three spots – it gives them some major advantages and success because they’re so long, athletic and quick.”

Cal Poly junior forward Megan Harrison enters the game posting team highs of 13.8 points and 6.6 rebounds a game, followed by fellow junior forward Lisa McBride’s 11.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, respectively.

In the Mustangs’ most recent game, Saturday’s 62-61 win at UC Davis, their first victory there in 19 seasons, senior guard Sparkle Anderson led the Mustangs with 18 points and eight assists, and sank the game-winning shot with 1.3 seconds left.

UC Riverside’s season-opening, five-game losing skid included non-conference stumbles of between 16 and 18 points to No. 10 Cal, No. 21 Oklahoma State and Auburn, which just dropped out of the top-25 rankings.

The Highlanders, who lost nine of their first 11, also fell to Big Ten contender Minnesota, 57-49, and Summit-leading South Dakota State, 93-90.

“Everyone in the conference had tough schedules so that by tournament time they’d be well seasoned, and be prepared with that mindset,” Mimnaugh said.

Last season, the Mustangs split with the Highlanders, losing 75-65 on the road before edging them at home nearly three months later, 64-58.

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