If UC Riverside had gotten to Mott Gym early Saturday morning, the Highlanders would have seen that it was not the time to sag off Ariana Elegado.
The Cal Poly guard was on fire in her morning shootaround, and the confidence carried over into a dominant 79-56 victory later that afternoon, the second straight blowout for a Mustangs program that just last week was searching for answers.
“I was rebounding for her” in the shootaround, Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said, “and, I swear, she must have missed five shots out of a hundred. It was like, ‘Hello! You better guard her today.’
“If I had played her the whole game, she probably would have ended up with 40 today. She was in that kind of a rhythm.”
Elegado finished with 19 points in 26 minutes of a game that was only close in the opening moments.
She went 5 of 8 from 3-point range and made her first two without a defender in sight. Molly Schlemer, who finished with 18 points, hit a layup in the key to give the Mustangs (12-8, 6-3 Big West Conference) a 12-6 lead just 4 minutes, 16 seconds into the game, and the Highlanders (10-10, 3-6 Big West) never got any closer.
Elegado continued to shoot, and UC Riverside continued neglecting her. It was somewhat of a departure from the way teams have been clamping down on her.
“I was surprised,” Mustangs forward Kayla Griffin said, “because she’s a great shooter. I wouldn’t leave her open if I was guarding her.”
Elegado hadn’t led the Mustangs in scoring since a 64-46 victory at UC Irvine on Jan. 5, when she scored 20 points and went 6 for 9 from 3-point range. In the past four games in particular, Elegado averaged just 5.5 points.
Confidence in her shot had ebbed some while her opportunities were limited. But the combination of her hot streak in pregame warmups and the Highlanders finding trouble denying her proved to be the perfect mix.
“I had my feet set,” Elegado said. “I had confidence I was going to make it. I think that’s what probably helped me.”
Also helpful was Schlemer’s powerful inside game. It was the eighth in a row and 10th of 11 games where the 6-foot-5 former Righetti High standout has scored double digits.
Shooting 55.6 percent from the floor coming into the game, Schlemer only helped her No. 15 national ranking by making 7 of 12 from the field.
And as teams turn their concern toward the rapidly improving Schlemer, it leaves more openings on the perimeter.
Junior point guard Jonae Ervin had 10 points and six assists, and Griffin had five points to go with a game-high 11 rebounds as Cal Poly didn’t commit its first turnover until there was 1:43 left in the first half.
TreShonte Nottingham led three UC Riverside players in double figures with 18 points. Brittany Crain and Natasha Hadley scored 12 apiece, and Hadley grabbed nine rebounds.
Cal Poly remained in a tie with Hawaii (10-10, 6-3 Big West) for second place in the Big West heading into another showdown with first-place Pacific (17-3, 7-1 Big West) on Thursday in Stockton.
The Tigers’ lone conference loss came to the Mustangs in double overtime last month, but Cal Poly fell off the pace with losses at Hawaii and Cal State Northridge last week, the second coming in a double-overtime heartbreaker of its own.
“When we lost those two games,” Griffin said, “we gathered together and said our defense needs to change. We need to play pressure defense, and when we do that, when we rebound and we run, that’s when were at our best.”
The Mustangs have been a high-scoring team all season. They ranked second in the conference to Pacific with 68.4 points per game coming into Saturday, but unlike the Tigers, who rank fourth in points allowed, Cal Poly gives up 67.1, nearly as many as they score, to rank last in the Big West.
In the past two games, however, the Mustangs have given up just 96 points combined.
“Defensively, we’ve been really solid,” Mimnaugh said. “We’ve got great team defense. We’re putting some pressure on the ball all the time at all positions.
“When we are able to force our opponent into shots they don’t necessarily want and then we can get out and break because we’re doing a good job on the boards, that’s been a key to success.”