With finals out of the way and her degree long in hand, Rachel Clancy is ready to return home to Ireland.
The Limerick, Ireland, native had to spend St. Patrick’s Day in San Luis Obispo, but it was for a special cause — the Cal Poly women’s basketball team’s first national postseason tournament appearance in program history.
And really, her country’s national holiday might even be more rowdy in the states.
“I feel like everyone is almost more excited than I am,” Clancy said. “Someone wanted me to Irish dance before the game, and I’m like ‘I don’t Irish dance.’ St. Patrick’s Day is almost, like, bigger over here.
“But it’s cool that we got to play on St. Patrick’s Day because, normally, we just have finals.”
Cal Poly had the shot of the Irish. What the Mustangs could have also used was more height.
Clancy celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a game-high 21 points, but Cal Poly’s season — and Clancy’s college career — ended with a 74-60 loss to bigger, stronger Cal in the first round of the WNIT on Thursday.
Led by Talia Caldwell’s 18 rebounds, including eight offensive, the Golden Bears (18-15) were good enough on the boards to limit Cal Poly’s run-and-gun game, and Cal beat the Mustangs (18-13) in second-chance points and points in the paint.
The Bears, who move on to play Colorado in the second round, had four players score double digits, including Layshia Clarendon with 20, Afure Jemerigbe with 15 and Eliza Pierre and Caldwell, who both scored 12.
With 13 points and 12 rebounds, Abby Bloetscher was the only other Cal Poly player to score more than eight, but the Mustangs center was limited after suffering an ankle sprain early in the second half.
“We played really, really hard,” Clancy said. “We were kind of outsized and outmuscled. It came down to a lot of rebounding. We didn’t do a good job in the first half, but even in the second half when we tried to get a body on them, they were just too big and jumped too high.”
A graduate student who returned for her final season of eligibility, Clancy finished seven points shy of scoring 1,000 in her three years on the court at Cal Poly.
Though she failed to reach that one milestone, the sharp-shooter does depart as the program’s all-time leader in career free-throw percentage (80.5 percent) and brought the Mustangs their only regular-season Big West Conference title in program history.
“She really is money,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “We’ve never had a player who shoots the ball as good as Rachel does. I’m constantly surprised if she ever missed a shot. You’re like, ‘What? What happened there? There must have been somebody that bumped her. That must have been a foul.’ ”
She won’t challenge Laura Buehning’s all-time program scoring record. Kristina Santiago could make a run at that next year, but Clancy helped lead the program to its current pinnacle after Santiago was lost to a torn ACL in the season-opener.
When Santiago went down, few were ready to believe that Clancy would follow up Santiago’s Big West Player of the Year honor with one of her own, but it has vaulted her among a short list of elite Mustangs.
“I never got to see Laura Buehning play,” Mimnaugh said. “Certainly, Santiago is one of the best players I’ve coached as well. And I think Megan Harrison and Rachel is right there with those guys. What a terrific year she’s had here at Cal Poly.”
After losing at home in the regular-season finale against UC Santa Barbara, the Mustangs thought their final game of the year would be on the road, preferably for them in the NCAA Tournament.
But when that dream died with a loss to UC Davis in the Big West Tournament final, Thursday’s WNIT game at Mott Gym was born.
Cal Poly made the most of the opportunity to start.
The Mustangs led 8-2 early on after two Clancy jumpers and scores in the paint by Bloetscher and Caroline Reeves. Even when Cal began to wear Cal Poly down, the Mustangs hung tough through the half.
The Bears went into the break with a 32-28 advantage.
“We were getting beat on dribble penetration,” Cal head coach Joanne Boyle said. “I think we were even on the boards at that particular time. We just looked disjointed a little bit. They were kind of pushing momentum, and we were playing at their tempo.”
With a couple of layups and a couple of 3-pointers to start the second half, Cal opened on a 10-5 run, and after Lindsay Sherbert hit a 3 with 14:19 left, Cal Poly was never able to get back to within nine.
In the end, the Bears only held a 48-42 advantage in rebounds, but with a roster that included seven players at 6 feet or taller, the effort that Cal Poly had to put into overcoming the size mismatch was too consuming.
“They knocked down a couple 3s and created a little bit more distance for us,” Mimnaugh said. “Shots just didn’t fall for us. We missed some open layups, too. I think we were a little bit rushed because they were bigger.”