Brittany Woodard found out just how quickly things can turn.
The Sacramento Christian Brothers High product and former Nevada transfer had come into her own for the Cal Poly women’s basketball team as the Mustangs’ second-leading scorer and rebounder this season.
In addition to being the team’s defensive stopper, Woodard had just scored a career-high 21 points in a Jan. 10 victory over UC Davis.
Two days later, her college basketball career was over.
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Cal Poly found out this week that it must go into today’s 4 p.m. showdown with Big West Conference rival UC Santa Barbara — and the rest of the season — without the fifth-year senior, who tore her ACL early in the first half of a Jan. 12 triple-overtime victory over Pacific.
“It’s kind of like a loss, a death in the family in some ways,” Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “We don’t want to be so dramatic about it, but it’s something you work for your whole adult life. And she was just starting to get into the swing of things for her, and the kind of player I saw from her in her high school career, she was just getting her confidence back.”
A 6-foot forward from the same high school as former Cal Poly football All-America cornerback Asa Jackson, Woodard was averaging 10.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in 26 minutes per game for the second-place Mustangs (9-6, 3-1 Big West).
For today’s game against the visiting Gauchos (6-10, 2-2 Big West), which will also feature a shooting contest fundraiser for the Rotary Polio Plus Program, Woodard will be replaced by fellow 6-foot senior Caroline Reeves, who returns to the starting lineup after coming off the bench for four games.
Reeves said several players will have to increase their production in Woodard’s absence, but Woodard’s inspiration and leadership on the floor will be hard to replicate.
“It’s really hard,” Reeves said. “I know a lot of us, our heart goes out to her because she’s been playing so well. I’m just really sad for her because she’s such an excellent player. I’m happy she had that good game right before. She had her career high against Davis. It’s hard just realizing for her that she’s going to be out for the rest of the season.”
Woodard’s absence will create more opportunities for other players off the bench beyond Reeves, who was initially replaced in the starting lineup when Mimnaugh decided to deploy a dual point-guard lineup with Jonae Ervin and leading scorer Ariana Elegado on the floor together.
Beyond the task of replacing Woodard, the matchup with the Gauchos is intriguing for another reason: The clashing styles of the Blue-Green rivals.
With 69.5 points per game, Cal Poly is the second-highest scoring team in the Big West. Perhaps by design, UC Santa Barbara is the lowest.
With a deliberate offense relying on set plays and a sagging man defense that clogs the lane, the Gauchos also allow the fewest points in the conference at 55.2 per game.
Cal Poly’s strategy is to speed things up. The Mustangs push the ball relentlessly, and transition scoring is one of the keys to their No. 27 national ranking and conference-leading total of 16.4 assists per game.
“In order for us to have up-tempo,” Mimnaugh said, “we have to rebound the ball, and we’re going against a team that does rebound the ball very well. If we rebound to run, that’s the only way we’ll damage them. If we can’t get it into our pace and we have to grind it out with them, I think it’s going to be an advantage for them.”
Standing in the way will be the Gauchos’ most productive player, 6-foot forward Sweets Underwood.
A low-post presence, Underwood scores a team-high 11.1 points per game and ranks third in the conference with 8.6 rebounds per game.
Behind Underwood, the Gauchos also own the Big West’s highest defensive rebounding percentage, securing the ball on 70.4 percent of their opponents’ misses.
Not quite the force that once won nine straight Big West titles, UC Santa Barbara has lost two straight and five of six coming in.
But the Gauchos have also shown that records can be deceiving. They won the Big West Tournament last season, becoming the first to do it as the sixth seed.
“I think regardless of how they have been doing already,” Reeves said, “it’s going to be a big game just because it’s Santa Barbara and it’s a good rivalry there.
“I definitely think that it’s still going to be one of those really big games that we all want to win really badly.”