Santiago helps Mustangs rise to the top

Forward has powered Cal Poly’s women’s basketball program to league title contender

jscroggin@thetribunenews.comMarch 4, 2012 

Cal Poly's Kristina Santiago is ranked in the top 25 in the nation in scoring and rebounds per game.

JAYSON MELLOM — jmellom@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

On a mission to get an opportunity in the WNBA, Kristina Santiago — and players who’ve joined her on the Cal Poly women’s basketball roster the past five seasons — have changed the mentality of the Mustangs program.

Head coach Faith Mimnaugh’s team has gone from a middling Big West Conference squad then to what it is today: A first-time outright regular-season Big West champion favored to make its first trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The journey continues Tuesday night when No. 1 Cal Poly (16-13, 12-4 Big West) hosts No. 8 Cal State Fullerton (11-18, 4-12 Big West) at 7 p.m. in Mott Gym in the first round of the conference tournament.

Barring a home game in the WNIT for the second straight season, it will be Santiago’s last game in San Luis Obispo. The senior from Righetti High has already guaranteed she’ll leave as the program’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder.

With a 33-point game in the season finale Saturday, Santiago upped her total to 1,873, besting the 1,843 Laura Buehning scored for the Mustangs from 1979 to 1982.

Santiago broke the program’s rebounding mark a few games ago and ranks in the top 25 in the country this season in scoring (23.1 ppg), rebounds per game (10.1), field goal percentage (55.8) and double doubles (15).

Mimnaugh believes the 6-foot-1 forward is talented enough to become the first player from Cal Poly to play in the WNBA.

“She’s been the face of the program for half of a decade here,” said Mimnaugh, who coached three future WNBA players while she was an assistant coach at North Carolina State for four seasons in the early 1990s. “She’s been doing great things for our program. Hopefully, if she does make the WNBA game, she will continue to help our program grow.”

Santiago might not have the athleticism of Andrea Stinson, who played nine seasons in the WNBA and was the first Charlotte Sting player to have her jersey retired, but Mimnaugh compared Santiago’s combination of skills and work ethic favorably to other former Wolf Pack women Rhonda Mapp and Sharon Manning, who each played for multiple WNBA franchises.

“She’s special, and she’s been so much fun to coach,” Mimnaugh said.

Of course, it’s more fun when you’re winning.

Under Mimnaugh, Cal Poly had never had an overall winning season before Santiago arrived. Now, it seems almost commonplace for the Mustangs to be considered a perennial Big West title contender.

Cal Poly tied for the regular-season conference title with rival UC Santa Barbara after losing at home to the Gauchos in the final game of the regular season last year.

This time, taking it outright and one game ahead of second-place Cal State Northridge was another step forward.

“The staff and the team feel like we’re playing the best ball in the league right now,” Mimnaugh said. “It felt like we deserved to be there at the top all by ourselves.

“Even when we didn’t have a great start to the nonconference season, still, whenever anybody in league beat us, they acted like they won the national championship, so there is a great respect for our program. So, that feels good.”

As for Tuesday’s opponent, Cal Poly owns two solid victories over the Titans, the most recent being a 66-48 victory at Mott Gym on Feb. 11.

It was the mid-point of a nine-game winning streak that just ended Thursday, when the Mustangs fell on the road 65-61 to UC Davis as Santiago was held out as a precaution after suffering a slight concussion in the previous game.

Cal State Fullerton is led by senior guard Megan Richardson, who stands second in the conference behind Santiago in scoring with 16.3 points per game and ranks third in the Big West in 3-pointers made.

Richardson and fellow senior guard Lauren Chow both helped the Titans give Cal Poly a scare in the first round of last season’s Big West Tournament.

Cal State Fullerton whittled a 17-point deficit to just three and had the potential game-tying last-second 3-pointer by Chow blocked.

“They’ve been playing everybody tough,” Mimnaugh said. “Megan is a heck of a player and has really done everything for Fullerton in her career.”

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