For the first time in four years, winning streaks have defined both Cal Poly basketball teams at the same time.
Going into a doubleheader tonight with the women’s team at Mott Gym, the men are on a four-game tear, the program’s longest since winning eight straight and squandering a first-half lead to lose in the Big West Conference Tournament championship game in 2006-07.
The Mustangs women also won eight straight that year, a streak they matched to start conference play this season, and they remain in control of the Big West race with six more regular-season games left.
The women, who tip things off against UC Irvine at 4 p.m. after sitting idle since Feb. 5, will try to maintain their 21⁄2-game lead on their next closest competitor against an Anteaters team that could be without its conference player-of-the-year candidate.
Above .500 overall for the first time since winning the season opener, the men are trying to maintain at least a share of second place in the conference standings against UC Riverside (9-13, 4-6 Big West), which the Mustangs beat 65-60 on the road last month.
Mikah Maly-Karros (19.5 points per game, 9.7 rebounds, 51.3 percent on field goals) was not with the UC Irvine women (13-10, 5-6 Big West) for their 70-56 loss Thursday at UC Santa Barbara for unexplained reasons.
“We’re preparing as if she’s playing,” Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen at this stage, but they’re a super team whether they have her or don’t have her.”
Conversely, Cal Poly (13-8, 9-1 Big West) will be without freshman center Molly Schlemer because of illness for the Mustangs’ Pink Zone game — a promotion to enhance breast cancer awareness where fans who wear pink will get free admission.
Mimnaugh is thankful for the extra-long layoff because Schlemer hasn’t been the only one coughing through practice recently.
“I felt like this was a week that we really needed to kind of get more rest,” Mimnaugh said through some sniffles of her own. “Hopefully, that’s going to serve us well.”
Coming off an 80-71 victory at UC Irvine that stands as their highest scoring game of the season, the Cal Poly men are finally as healthy as can be in a season where they lost two projected starters at guard to season-ending injuries in the preseason.
The Mustangs haven’t lost since what could have been a devastating buzzer-beating 71-70 locally televised home loss to the Guachos on Jan. 27.
The loss happened. The devastation did not.
“The practice the day after Santa Barbara, we had one of our best practices of the year,” sophomore guard Chris O’Brien said. “We just got after it and just said, ‘OK, what’s done is done, and we can only go forward.’ ”
Since then, a team that ranks last in Big West with only 59 points per game has averaged 70 and seems to be reaching a peak now that O’Brien, fellow sophomore Drake U’u and freshman forward Ben Eisenhardt are fully recovered from injuries and ailments that caused them to miss time earlier the season.
“You see teams who get these winning streaks, they get satisfied and they take a step back where you’ve got to keep that mental toughness, physical toughness to want more,” O’Brien said. “Coach does a great job of instilling that in us, and we just have to make it come through on the floor.
“That momentum, it’s an addiction.”
The Highlanders come in having lost five of the past seven, but they are the only team thus far that has been able to sweep Cal State Northridge, the team tied with Cal Poly in second place.
The Mustangs have been averaging 7.6 3-pointers per game going back to the loss to the Gauchos. Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said he expects his team to get plenty of long-distance opportunities against UC Riverside.
“Riverside is a complete pack it in team defensively,” Callero said. “They don’t give you the post-up. Everything’s going to be an exterior game because that’s what they give you. It’s like football: You can’t run, they put eight in the box, and you better be able to throw the ball.”