Under Faith Mimnaugh, Cal Poly can finally call itself a champion.
The Mustangs women’s basketball team clinched at least a share of the regular-season Big West Conference title — a first for both its 14-year head coach and the program overall — and put itself in position to take any top-seed tiebreaker with a 61-48 victory over visiting Long Beach State on Saturday.
Only a showdown with second-place UC Santa Barbara at Mott Gym next Saturday remains.
With a one-game lead going into the finale, Cal Poly (16-10, 12-3 Big West) will be the top seed for the Big West Tournament but must win to ensure it won’t have to share the crown with the Gauchos, 13-time conference tournament champions.
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“We want to put our first banner in Mott Gym, and we don’t want it to be saying ‘co-,’ ” Mimnaugh said. “We’re not interested in saying co-. We’re happy we’re in that position, but Santa Barbara’s got enough banners in their gym. There’s no more space. We think it’s time for Cal Poly.”
Who would have thought the Mustangs would come this far without Kristina Santiago? Few outside the program had title expectations after one of the best, if not the best, players in program history was lost to a torn ACL since the season-opener.
Prior to Santiago’s arrival on campus, the Mustangs had never had a winning record under Mimnaugh.
Cal Poly also suffered season-ending injuries to Christine Martin and Nikol Allison, endured mid-season suspensions of several players for unspecified violations of team rules and most recently withstood an illness to 6-foot-5 freshman center Molly Schlemer and a knee-injury scare to sophomore point guard Jonae Ervin.
“This has been kind of a crazy year,” junior center Abby Bloetscher said. “We’ve had some injuries, we’ve had some losses, but we keep pushing. That’s what’s really great about this team: We can come back form anything. That really speaks to the determination of our team.”
Now, the Mustangs have so much confidence and momentum, anything less than a title would be a disappointment.
“When everyone sits down later on after their dinner and thinks about it, they’ll really realize that we made history tonight for Cal Poly,” senior guard Rachel Clancy said.
“It’s great that we’ve been rewarded thus far with getting a share of it, but we don’t want to share. So we’re going to work really, really hard this week and come out next week looking for sole possession of that championship.”
Clancy rebounded from an off night Thursday to score a game-high 24 points, and where Caroline Reeves and Jonae Ervin were a dynamic scoring duo against Cal State Fullerton, it was Bloetscher and Ashlee Burns against the 49ers.
Bloetscher had 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the floor, and Burns was 5 of 7 for 13 points, including a 3-pointer launched from three feet beyond the 3-point line.
Cal Poly used a 10-minute, 17-0 run to reverse a five-point first-half deficit before giving back all but one point at the break.
But the Mustangs opened the second half with an 8-0 run and didn’t allow the 49ers (8-21, 6-9 Big West) to score a field goal for the first 14:25.
“We went up by six, seven, kept going up by double figures and we kept the lead,” Clancy said. “We don’t let people back in it too much, and I think we countered their run with one of our own.”
Kayla Griffin had only two pointsbut tallied game highs with 13 rebounds and eight assists for Cal Poly.
Griffin helped shut down 49ers leading scorer Courtney Jacob (14.5 points per game), who finished with a team-high nine points.
Long Beach State built a 7-2 lead in the first 2:39 thanks to three offensive rebounds during that span.
Mimnaugh briefly switched to a zone defense, and Griffin had five rebounds over the next five minutes to limit Long Beach State’s second-chance points.
“Sometimes, it’s just another reminder, ‘Hey can you go rebound the ball for us, too?’ ” Mimnaugh said. “She does everything, and there’s no question in my mind that she’s the glue for our team.”