When Rachel Clancy stepped to the line, players, coaches and spectators alike had to be confident that the Cal Poly women’s basketball team’s all-time leader in free-throw percentage was going to save the game.
But here’s the thing few of them knew about the recently named Big West Conference Player of the Year and native of Limerick, Ireland. “We don’t have one-and-ones in Ireland, you see,” the fifth-year senior said. “It’s just, like, two. There’s no such thing as a one and one.”
So, as the Mustangs (17-11) clung to a two-point lead with 26 seconds left in their conference tournament opener against Cal State Fullerton (9-21) on Tuesday night at Mott Gym, a culture clash helped to make a tense moment even more nerve-racking.
Five years must have been plenty to acclimate to the hardcourt customs of the United States.
Clancy overcame the pressure to sink both free throws, swished another pair just moments later and partially blocked Cal State Fullerton guard Lauren Chow’s last-second, potentially tying 3-pointer to keep the Mustangs alive and secure a 73-70 victory.
“I shoot on that basket six or seven days a week for hours and hours on end, and I’ve taken a million free throws. So, I was just thinking ‘I want to go to Anaheim,’ ” Clancy said, “and the ball went in.”
Top-seeded Cal Poly punched its ticket to the Honda Center, where the Mustangs will face No. 7 seed Pacific on Friday at noon. The Tigers stunned No. 2 UC Santa Barbara, 49-45, in the Thunderdome.
Clancy scored a game-high 17 points, including three 3-pointers, and her 4-for-4 effort at the free throw line improved her program-leading career free-thow percentage of 79.5.
Kayla Griffin added 12 points, nine rebounds and five assists for Cal Poly, Jonae Ervin had 11 points and eight rebounds, and Abby Bloetscher added 11 points.
Lyndsey Grove led Cal State Fullerton with 15 points, including a 3-pointer with 8.8 seconds left that cut the lead to 71-70 and put the pressure back on Clancy at the free-throw line.
Ashley Richie had 14 points for the Titans, and Megan Richardson scored 10.
Cal Poly’s victory came after the Mustangs blew most of a 17-point second-half lead to let the Titans back into the game.
After taking just seven minutes to build a double-digit lead in the first half, Cal Poly was up 47-30 after a backdoor layup by senior guard Desiray Johnston less than a minute-and-a-half into the second half.
The lead hovered around 10 for most of the half. Cal State Fullerton only made a serious push when Chow hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to six with 2:29 left.
“I didn’t expect anything less than this being a tight game to be honest with you,” Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “I was a little surprised that we opened up the first-half lead because I was expecting it to be a nail-biter, and it was.”
It might have been less of a nail-biter had the Titans not gotten three offensive rebounds in the final 1:35.
“Rebounding killed us,” Griffin said. “They got a lot of second-shot attempts. And we didn’t run like we did before. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it was because of the rebounding.”
The Titans had 14 offensive rebounds and held a 21-10 advantage in second-chance points.
That kept Cal Poly from pushing the ball on the break, and Mimnaugh shouldered the responsibility for a substitution pattern that might not have kept players as fresh as they should have been.
But when Clancy came away with the final loose ball, losing the big lead was secondary to celebrating another step toward what could potentially be the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth.
The second biggest cheer of the night came when supporters, and later the players, found out that the Gauchos has been upset coming off a 78-64 win over Cal Poly on Saturday.
“We have great respect for them, but there’s no love lost between the two teams,” Mimnaugh said. “None. Zero. Zip.
“Santa Barbara, the way they played against us on Saturday, for that day, they were the best team in the conference in my opinion. So having them out of the way, hopefully clears the way for us, but we have to take care of business.”