As the adulation pumping from the public address speakers in Mott Gym was praising Kristina Santiago — for a couple of career highs and one big scoring milestone — all the Cal Poly junior forward was focused on was getting back in the Big West Conference race.
Santiago scored a career-high 34 points, including six of the Mustangs’ 11 points in overtime, and eclipsed 1,000 points in the team’s women’s basketball win Thursday over visiting Cal State Fullerton, which came into the contest unbeaten in conference play.
Santiago’s 1,000th point gave Cal Poly a two-point lead in a tense back-and-forth game where she also set a career high for field goals, and her first basket in overtime broke her previous scoring high of 29, which she tied one game prior. But really, Santiago didn’t begin to soak it up until the game was well in hand.
“I’m probably the most oblivious person on the court when it comes to what’s going on off the court,” the former Righetti High standout said. “I had no idea, so no, I did not know that. It’s kind of cool after, though.”
The win helped Cal Poly (9-5, 3-1 Big West) from falling dangerously behind a Titans team that came into the game just 8-8 overall but was 4-0 in the Big West after winning only 10 games all of last season.
Rachel Clancy pitched in 17 points, including a 5-for-6 effort from 3-point range, Desiray Johnston had a career-high nine assists and the Mustangs also got a career-high nine points from freshman forward Kayla Griffin, who played a career-high 26 minutes filling in for injured post player Becky Tratter.
Still, most of the story was Santiago, who also had team highs with seven rebounds, five steals and three blocks and was the only player on either team to play all 45 minutes.
It seemed like every time a lull in Cal Poly’s scoring output allowed Cal State Fullerton to either stay in the game or take the lead, Santiago showed up to snap her team out of it.
Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh said it was an MVP performance.
“She was just awesome,” Mimnaugh said. “She did everything on the court for us tonight … If tonight didn’t convince at least two coaches that she’s the best player in the league, I don’t know what else would. She was knocking down outside shots, taking balls to the bucket, swatting shots, coming up with rebounds.”
Though the team was without Tratter, who is expected to return for Saturday’s home game with Long Beach State for the first time since spraining her foot in last week’s game at Pacific, her absence opened the floor for Santiago to operate in all of the ways Mimnaugh listed.
Santiago came into the game leading the conference with 19.6 points per game. She’s led the Mustangs in scoring in 12 of their 15 games. But her effort has especially picked up with the start of Big West play, where Santiago is averaging more than 27 points.
“She’s very inspirational for me,” Griffin said. “She shows great leadership.
She has confidence (that) she can be our go-to player. She can do a lot of stuff, and as a freshman, I look up to someone like that.”
Looking up to and looking at are two different things, and Cal Poly is aware that it can’t get too over-reliant on its star to score all the points.
“We do tend to watch a little when she gets the ball,” Clancy said, “and a few times it ran down to the end of the shot clock, and we weren’t sure what to do. We were running pick-and-rolls that we shouldn’t have been running. “We need to do a better job of trying to move off her when she gets it inside so when a team decides to double, they won’t be able to because we’ll be moving away from her.”