ANAHEIM — A disappointing loss to Long Beach State at Mott Gym last week cost the Cal Poly women’s basketball team a shot at the regular-season conference title.
Big West Player of the Year Molly Schlemer had an awful game against the 49ers that day, and it looked like the bad mojo followed Cal Poly into its opener of the conference tournament, a semifinal matchup with rival UC Santa Barbara on Friday.
But after scoring a season-low 22 points against the fourth-seeded Gauchos in the first half at Honda Center, No. 2 Cal Poly decided to go almost exclusively to its 6-foot-5 center, whose renewed confidence has the Mustangs one victory away from their first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history with a 62-43 victory.
“If they do that, I’ll try to convert as much as I can,” said Schlemer, who scored 20 of her game-high 26 points in the second half and grabbed nine rebounds.
“I feel like I had confidence in my shot, which I was lacking last week against Long Beach, and so I’m glad I got that back.”
Schlemer’s 23 field-goal attempts were a season high in the Big West. The former Righetti High standout sank 10 of them and was 6 of 7 from the free-throw line.
On the defensive end, senior Kayla Griffin spearheaded an attack that held UC Santa Barbara leading scorer Sweets Underwood to four points on 2-of-7 shooting.
Griffin tied for the team high with nine rebounds to go with three points, two assists, a block and a steal.
Ariana Elegado and Jonae Ervin had eight points apiece, and Ervin dished out four assists.
The victory sets up a 1 p.m. championship match against No. 1 Pacific, which hung on to beat No. 8 Cal State Fullerton 54-51 and end the Titans’ Cinderella run after the midseason murder of assistant coach Monica Kwan.
Something will have to give today with the winner going to the NCAA Tournament and the loser heading to the WNIT, and there are lengthy streaks on either side.
Having reached the title game now three times in the past five years, Cal Poly (20-10) has yet to win, but Pacific is winless, too.
The Tigers have been to the title game four fruitless times in program history, but they have some history on their side. The No. 2 seed has not won the Big West Tournament title since 1996.
Then again, the last time a No. 2 seed did win, it came against Pacific.
Trends aside, Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh is just happy to be back in the final after her top-seeded team lost in the semifinals last season to end the career of all-time great Kristina Santiago.
“The best teams in the conference are representing the Big West championship opportunity,” Mimnaugh said, “And I’m glad to see that. I felt like last year, we really, we choked, and I felt like we were the best team last year.”
It looked like Cal Poly had to dislodge something from its throat early on against UC Santa Barbara. The Mustangs were scoreless through the first six minutes.
They missed their first eight shots, including five 3-pointers before Schlemer converted a layup for Cal Poly’s first points with 13:57 left in the half.
The Mustangs’ defense held strong, limiting Santa Barbara to just four points at that point, but Cal Poly was definitely out of synch.
“We took way too many 3s,” Griffin said. “Playing in an arena like this, our shooting’s not going to be as good as, say, at home. I think we needed more inside attack, and we settled too much for the outside, and of course nerves play into it. It’s a big game coming into it so we just needed to drive instead of settling for the 3.”
Needing a spark, Mimnaugh went to reserve guard Kristen Ale five minutes into the game after Elegado started 0 for 3 on 3-pointers with a turnover and a foul.
Ale swished a 3-pointer to give the Mustangs their first lead of the game and drove for another basket moments later to keep Cal Poly ahead 14-13. UC Santa Barbara held the lead just once more, and Ale’s only points of the game jump-started the Mustangs offense.
“If Kristen hadn’t looked to knock down a 3,” Mimnaugh said, “if she hadn’t looked for a pull-up jump shot when we desperately needed some good stuff happening for us, I didn’t know that we would have gained the confidence that we needed. So, it was bigtime.”
“I just had a feeling today was going to be Kristen’s day and thank you for that message God.”