By the end, having the crowd didn’t matter much.
Not finding an answer for UC Santa Barbara center Mekia Valentine hurt the Cal Poly women’s basketball team enough that no amount of cheering could bring it back.
Most of the program-record 2,552 at Mott Gym sat in stunned silence anyway Saturday as the Gauchos broke open a close game by storming to a double-digit lead with nine minutes left and cruising the rest of the way in a 78-64 victory that forced the teams to share the regular-season Big West Conference title.
Valentine had 27 points, 20 rebounds and five blocks — controlling the paint on both ends of the floor. Her dominant presence allowed UC Santa Barbara (19-10, 12-4 Big West) to put the clamps on Cal Poly leading scorer Rachel Clancy, who was limited to just 3-for-13 shooting from the field.
As a team, the Mustangs (16-11, 12-4 Big West) were only 1 for 6 from 3-point range, their lowest number of 3-point attempts all season. “I don’t think I’ve faced tougher individual defense this year,” said Clancy, who finished with seven points after going scoreless into the half.
“They know that she’ll close off the paint, which allows them to get up more and pressure because they know if we beat them off the dribble, she’s there.”
Cal Poly does head into Tuesday’s first round of the Big West Tournament as the No. 1 seed thanks to a tiebreaker and hosts Cal State Fullerton at 7 p.m.
The tournament’s semifinal and final rounds will be held at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Friday and Saturday.
If the teams meet again, it would be in the final, where the Mustangs will have to do something different to neutralize Valentine.
“She was strong on the block, she was killing us on the boards, and as great as Emilie Johnson played, Mekia played like a champ today,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “She wanted her team to have a share of the Big West championship today, and she brought it.”
It’s the first Big West title for the Mustangs since they joined the conference in 1996. It’s the 14th for the Gauchos — thanks to the career night for Valentine, a former Wake Forest transfer who was ranked in the top 25 at her position nationally coming out of high school.
“A lot of people have been saying that all night,” Valentine said. “I think I’ve played good in my career before. I think that this is just kind of really an exciting game, and the fact that my teammates were in it with me really helped me play even better. That’s what made it a career night for me.”
Kelsey Adrian scored 17 points, all but three in the second half, for UC Santa Barbara and Johnson, the reigning Big West Player of the Week, had 18 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Though overshadowed by Valentine, Cal Poly center Abby Bloetscher had 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Jonae Ervin led the Mustangs with 17 points, but the Mustangs’ two top scorers combined to shoot less than 27 percent.
The big crowd, which upped the team’s average home attendance to 671 this season, seemed to spur Cal Poly early.
The Mustangs jumped out to a 7-0 lead as the Gauchos turned the ball over on their first four possessions.
“The crowd was fantastic,” Clancy said. “I’ve never seen that many people in Mott Gym in my entire life. The coaches had us out promoting the game all week, and they’ve been sending out e-mails and flyers and doing crazy things. It was great seeing all that pay off and the crowd out there. Hopefully, they’ll come out on Tuesday because that’s a do-or-die game for us to get to Anaheim.”
UC Santa Barbara fought to take a one-point lead at halftime before Cal Poly roared back to take a four-point lead 3:09 into the second.
The game went back-and-forth until Johnson had a four-point play, swishing a 3-pointer while being fouled by Mustangs senior guard Desiray Johnston, who finished with nine points.
It was the start of a decisive 13-2 run by the Gauchos, which culminated in a layup by Valentine that sent the UC Santa Barbara center strutting back down the court.
“We were a little bit out of sorts when they made their run,” Clancy said. “We weren’t as together as we normally are so I think that maybe made them go on another run. That was a little disappointing.”