ANAHEIM — Before the start of the year, Rachel Clancy and the Cal Poly women’s basketball team planned on playing in the Big West Conference Tournament final.
“We drew road maps for the season when we all got back to school in September,” Clancy said, “and we took it out and looked at it last week, and we knew we were only a couple steps away from our dream.”
Not one of those road maps could have included the detour thrown the Mustangs’ way when they lost Kristina Santiago, last year’s Big West Player of the Year, to a season-ending knee injury two minutes into the opener.
But just as she has all year, Clancy hardly hesitated to put the team on her back Friday.
The fifth-year senior guard scored 18 of the Mustangs’ 32-first half points, keeping No. 1 seed Cal Poly (18-11) in the game long enough to pull away in the second half for a 70-55 semifinal victory over No. 7 seed Pacific (9-22).
Fighting off a 5-0 run by the Tigers to start, the Mustangs came back to tie the score at the half, adjusted to the potency of Pacific center Danielle Peacon and took control with an 11-0 run to start the second.
The victory set up a showdown for the Big West’s automatic bid, and likely only berth, for the NCAA Tournament between the Mustangs and UC Davis, which eked out a 44-39 victory over UC Riverside, in today’s 1 p.m. final.
A loss would send Cal Poly to the WNIT, which would still be the program’s first postseason appearance outside of the conference tournament.
Clancy, who finished with game highs of 26 points and 14 rebounds, reacted to the tone early when the recently named Big West Player of the Year — normally reliant on spot-up shooting — penetrated for a couple shots off the dribble.
Over the course of the season, defenders have zeroed in on her shooting tendencies, and without Santiago to draw double teams, she’s had to adapt.
“Because of the way I’m being defended this year, I’ve had to be more versatile on offense,” Clancy said, “and in the first half, it took us a couple minutes to kind of get up and go. So I was trying to be a little bit proactive and shot a couple of tough off-balance shots. But if a couple of them drop, it gives the rest of the girls a lot of confidence.
“In the second half, everyone else just took over and it was just a fantastic team performance, the best team half we’ve had offensively all year.”
When Clancy wasn’t scoring, she was seen bringing the team together for on-court huddles, handing out words of encouragement and strategic pointers — bringing a quality of leadership that has been just as valuable to the team as everything else she’s done. Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh declined to identify Clancy’s biggest contribution.
“Everything I’ve asked her to do this year, she’s exceeded it,” Mimnaugh said. “I had a little chat with her (Thursday) at practice and asked ‘Hey, can you help us with rebounding?’ I’m sure she had a double-double with that tonight.”
Mustangs center Abby Bloetscher also had a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds and was a big key to limiting Peacon after going scoreless in the first half.
Following a theme that killed Cal Poly in the regular season finale — a blowout loss to UC Santa Barbara that was dominated by 6-foot-4 Gauchos center Mekia Valentine — the Mustangs were hard-pressed to compete inside.
Peacon, a 6-3 freshman, blocked two shots in the first half and went into the locker room at the break with team highs of 11 points and four rebounds.
“In the second half, we really focused on cutting off her baseline and her right hand,” Bloetscher said, “and I was trying to focus on keeping her out of the lane and from getting so deep, so she wasn’t comfortable.”
Peacon finished with 17 points and seven rebounds to lead Pacific, which also got 15 points from Kendall Rodriguez and 10 from Jordan Rogers.
Jonae Ervin emerged as a secondary scorer with nine points, and Kayla Griffin added seven, but this game was all about Cal Poly’s Irish import.
“Rachel literally does everything on the court for us,” Bloetscher said. “I could give you, like a top-five things that I know she does, but it’s hard. Her leadership is definitely what got us here.”