ANAHEIM — The Cal Poly women’s basketball program will end this season with another step forward.
It just won’t be the one the Mustangs were hoping for after a disastrous start in Saturday’s Big West Conference Tournament final conspired to bounce them from their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament to a berth in the WNIT.
Looking lost against the trapping zone of fourth-seeded UC Davis (24-8), which will instead make its program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance at the Division I level, top-seeded Cal Poly (18-12) fell 66-49, despite 20 points from all-tournament honoree and conference player of the year Rachel Clancy.
Considering how far the team had come since losing last year’s player of the year, senior Kristina Santiago to a season-ending injury in the opener at Seattle, the disappointment was somewhat tempered.
When the WNIT field is announced Monday night, it will still be the first time the Mustangs will be included in a postseason tournament, even though it’s not the Big Dance.
“We’re all disappointed because that’s why we’re here,” said Mustangs junior center Abby Bloetscher, who also made the all-tournament team. “That’s what this whole season has been about, but I think we can take the realization from it that even though a lot of people didn’t think we would be here after Seattle and what happened this season — and a lot of people just expected us to kind of die off — we still stuck with it and we were co-champions of our league, we got the number one seed, we made it to the championship game, and we made it to our first postseason appearance.”
In a storybook ending, the Aggies secured their first NCAA berth for Sandy Simpson, the program’s winningest head coach who announced in November that this, his 15th at the helm, would be his last.
Even before the opening tip, there was a feel that this was UC Davis’ time.
The Aggies supporters charged themselves up with choreographed chants that filled the cavernous Honda Center with spirit.
Completely unprepared for the moment, Mustangs fans responded with hearty silence and bottoms glued to seats.
The lackluster effort carried over to the court as Cal Poly wandered around the floor offensively in search of a solution to UC Davis’ pressure 2-1-2 zone. The Aggies extended their defense, trapped shooters, got their hands in the passing lanes and funneled penetration to their big inside presence, 6-foot-2 center and tournament MVP Paige Mintun.
Having last played UC Davis in an 81-61 loss Feb. 3, the Mustangs struggled with the short preparation window after learning the final matchup Friday afternoon for Saturday’s 1 p.m. tipoff.
“We spent about 10 minutes this morning going over their zone,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said, “but we really don’t have the size to mimic anything that they do They have a great system, they have the right people for their system, and they played a heck of a game.
“You just don’t see the angle defense that they play from other teams, so it is an adjustment, and it takes more time, and we didn’t perform well.”
Five minutes into the game, Bloetscher was on the bench with two fouls, and Cal Poly was trailing 9-2.
The Aggies pushed the lead to double digits on a three-point play by Mintun with 12:40 left, and Clancy’s scoring was the only thing keeping the score close.
The senior followed Mintun’s score with a jumper of her own and a 3-pointer that cut the deficit to seven, even though UC Davis’ entire defensive focus was on stopping her.
“If you leave Rachel Clancy open, you’re going to pay and we paid every single time tonight that we lost track of her,” Simpson said.
“We came out at the second half and just lost her a couple times. We finally did call a timeout shortly thereafter to remind the team what we were trying to do out there. It wasn’t a lack of effort. You have to credit Faith for her adjustment moving Rachel around a little bit.”
Clancy had a 3-pointer to start the second half, added another jumper a few possessions later, and sank another 3 to cut the Aggies lead to five with 15:22 left in the game.
But the closeness was short-lived. Mintun got to the free-throw line just 11 seconds later, sank them both, and within a three-minute span, the lead was back to double digits.
After building a 13-point halftime deficit, Cal Poly needed shut-down defense. Instead, the Mustangs ended up continually sending the Aggies to the free-throw line.
UC Davis was 23 for 26 from the stripe.
“We’d sometimes do a good job of being really intense but then negating our effort with fouls,” Clancy said. “So, we put them on the free throw-line a lot, and they are exceptional free-throw shooters.”