When Desiray Johnston arrived at Cal Poly three-and-a-half years ago, the former Archbishop Mitty High guard was coming off back-to-back CIF state divisional titles at the San Jose school.
At the time, the Mustangs women were not only without a Big West title to their credit since joining the conference in 1996, they were riding a streak of 15 straight years without a winning record.
During Johnston’s Cal Poly career, however, inertia in Mott Gym has completely reversed.
“I expect nothing less,” said Johnston, one of three seniors to be honored prior to today’s regular-season finale against UC Santa Barbara. “I plan on ending my college career the same way I ended my high school career, and that’s with a championship.”
The Mustangs (16-10, 12-3 Big West) have already clinched a share of their first regular-season Big West title, and a win over the Gauchos (18-10, 11-4 Big West) is the only way to ensure that they don’t share it with their Blue-Green rivals in today’s 4 p.m. game.
To do that, Cal Poly will have to contend with a hot-shooting UC Santa Barbara point guard, will have to adapt to an unpredictable defense and believes it must corral enough Mustangs fans to pack Mott Gym.
The Cal Poly men are playing at the Thunderdome having already sewn up the second seed for the Big West Tournament, win or lose. That game is being televised at 7 p.m. on CBS.
Averaging 483 in per-game attendance in an arena that seats more than 3,000, the Mustangs women are making a big push to raise awareness about their game and where the stakes seem much higher.
This week, Cal Poly players manned a booth in front of Mott Gym where they could appeal to passing students, and they made an appearance at Farmer’s Market in San Luis Obispo on Thursday to sign autographs and promote the game.
“The reaction is surprise,” Mustangs sophomore Kayla Griffin said about the buzz on campus, “because Cal Poly has never had a conference championship before. The students are going to want to come out more and support us just to show that they are supporting us for winning.”
Motivation for the publicity tour is simple. This figures to be a difficult game for both teams, and Cal Poly has historically had a particularly tough time with their neighbors to the south.
Prior to defeating the Gauchos at home last season, Cal Poly had lost six straight to UC Santa Barbara and hadn’t beaten their rivals in Mott Gym since 2001.
A late-January matchup this season came down to a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer that gave the Mustangs a 54-51 victory.
UC Santa Barbara twice led by seven, Cal Poly’s biggest lead in the game was six, but for the most part, it was tight the entire night.
Gauchos junior guard Emilie Johnson had 17 points in defeat and has been on a tear ever since. Leading UC Santa Barbara to a 6-1 record during the span, Johnson has averaged 19.8 points per game and has twice been named Big West player of the week.
“She’s huge,” said Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh, who became the fifth coach to surpass 100 Big West victories last week. “Her ability to shoot the 3. She has a pull-up jump shot. Her ability to take it all the way to the basket. She definitely can find all of her teammates on the court, and she handles pressure well.
“It’s going to take a committee on our part to hold her down.”
Defensively, third-year UC Santa Barbara coach Lindsay Gottlieb has earned a reputation for switching up her defensive looks, and the Gauchos have been allowing a league-low 58.6 points per game.
UC Santa Barbara funnels things defensively toward 6-foot-4 center Mekia Valentine, who had six blocks against Cal Poly in the first matchup and easily leads the Big West with 3.7 blocked shots per game.
The game plan for Cal Poly, which ranks second in the Big West with 69.3 points per game, is to get out and run.
To do that, the Mustangs will have to prevent the Gauchos’ grinding offense from scoring and make sure to limit offensive rebounds. Griffin’s play could be key in both of those areas.
The do-it-all player has been close to a triple-double a few times this season, and ranked fourth in conference play with 7.6 rebounds per game, the former high school point guard is one of a few who can rebound effectively and push the ball on the fast break.
The team has also relied on her distribution skills and press-breaking all season.
“I’m trying to focus on a lot,” Griffin said, “but mainly defense and rebounding. “If we rebound and run, it makes it a lot easier for us.”