Desiree Johnston worked her way into the Cal Poly women’s basketball starting lineup as a pesky defender.
Mustangs coach Faith Mimnaugh likened her to a bug the way the junior guard pesters opposing ball handlers, assaulting their sight lines almost immediately as they touch the ball. “My job basically on the court every game is to make the point guard’s life miserable so they don’t want the ball,” Johnston said, “and that’s what my little edge is.”
But on a team still in search of supplemental scorers — still trying to figure out which players will fit into a number of certain roles — Johnston showed she’s also capable of shooting in the team’s home opener on Sunday.
Johnston scored a career-high 16 points and dished out six assists, senior center Becky Tratter led the team with a career-high 19 points and Cal Poly had its biggest scoring output in almost two years as the Mustangs (1-1) held on late to beat New Mexico State 90-86 at Mott Gym.
Junior Kristina Santiago, Cal Poly’s returning All-Big West first-team forward, had 15 points, five rebounds and three blocks, and senior guard Ashlee Steward scored 13, including a driving layup that gave the Mustangs a five-point lead with 49 seconds left in the game.
Following up a 17–point performance in a 71-61 loss to Oregon State on Friday, Santiago appeared to be bothered more by foul trouble than by the back problems that threatened to keep her out of the lineup to start the season.
Santiago sat for almost 61⁄2 minutes of the second half with four fouls. Santiago also picked up two quick fouls and missed most of the first half in a tough game with the Beavers. But that’s not to say her back troubles are over.
“I think it was a little bit tighter today because she played a heck of a half against Oregon State,” Mimnaugh said. “She went nuts, and they were pretty physical up there with their style of style of play.”
Sunday, Cal Poly got physical play from Tratter, who quietly shot 8 for 13 from the field and grabbed six rebounds.
Tratter was also the team’s second-leading scorer with 14 points against Oregon State, and looks like a prime candidate to replace a good portion of the scoring lost by the graduation of seniors Lisa McBride and Megan Harrison, who combined for more than 24 points per game.
“Her physical power has been able to offset some of the size difference that she’ll be facing inside the post,” Mimnaugh said, “and she’s a tremendous scorer. Her and Santiago are going to be our one-two punch for sure.”
Undersized but not underpowered at 5-foot-11, Tratter said she’s not putting pressure on herself to be a go-to scorer. She just goes about her business, taking advantages of her opportunities under the basket.
“It’s the same thing,” Tratter said. “I always play my game. I can’t really change it. If I change it, then I’m just forcing stuff and it’s not going to fall into play.”
While Tratter was working hard down low, it was junior guard Rachel Clancy who led the team with nine rebounds, four on the offensive glass.
Clancy, who missed her first four shot attempts before nailing a spot-up 3-pointer on an assist from Johnston to give the Mustangs a 52-45 lead with 15:10 left in the second half, is the team’s highest percentage shooter.
She’s not normally thought of as a big rebounder, but with a short front line, Mimnaugh said she’s stressing the importance of hitting the boards to her wing players, even the shooters.
“I was concerned how Oregon State just pounded us on the glass,” Mimnaugh said. “I didn’t know how we’d be able to survive with that lineup. We did better today, and still defensive boards for us, we still aren’t quite where we want to be.”
Mimnaugh also said the 25 3-pointers shot by her team were too many, though Cal Poly did get three makes from beyond the arc by Johnston and two from Brittany Lange, who scored all of her 11 points in the first half.
The score went back and forth until a Johnston 3-pointer with 3:17 left game Cal Poly it’s biggest cushion of the day at 82-74.
Still, New Mexico State fought back to within two at 88-86 with 8 seconds left, when Johnston, who’s previous career high was five points, iced the game with two free throws.
“It comes from confidence,” said Johnston, who helped her high school team Archbishop Mitty to the Division II CIF state title her senior season. “I know how many shots I’ve taken. I’ve taken a million free throws in practice. I’ve taken a million threes. I’m just confident in my game, so I don’t need to be nervous.”