It was an arduous wait for the Cal Poly women’s basketball team to get into its first NCAA Tournament.
But as the Mustangs sat down to celebrate their berth at a selection show party at Firestone Grill on Monday, the proverbial pins and needles had precious little time to do their poking.
After winning the Big West Conference Tournament on Saturday, 14th-seeded Cal Poly (21-10) will face third-seeded Penn State (25-5) in Baton Rouge, La., at 1 p.m. Sunday.
The announcement came just moments into ESPN’s broadcast of the tournament’s brackets. It was the sixth of 32 first-round matchups shown, and it allowed Mustangs players, coaches, friends, family and fans packing the bar area at the downtown restaurant to quickly turn their attentions away from the TVs.
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For the first time since joining Division I for the 1994-95 season, a Mustangs basketball program — men’s or women’s — is playing in the NCAA Tournament.
“Everyone has been waiting just as much as we have been working,” junior center and Righetti High graduate Molly Schlemer said. “So, it’s really exciting to give them that.
“Even walking here, they were saying ‘Congratulations,’ people I don’t even know, just strangers. It’s really, really great for our program to get to this point.”
Cal Poly had been close before. The Mustangs won back-to-back regular-season conference championships heading into this season but fell short in the Big West Tournament each time.
Saturday’s 63-49 victory over Pacific in the final of the conference tournament was Cal Poly’s third trip to the championship game in the past five years.
After losing Kristina Santiago, the third straight Big West Player of the Year, to graduation, the Mustangs were predicted to finish fourth in the Big West preseason poll. They ended up second, beat first-place Pacific three times, and Schlemer, a 6-foot-5 center, made it four straight players of the year.
“To me, that’s just good coaching,” Mustangs athletic director Don Oberhelman said, “when you’re able to replace those marquee player like that. Santiago may be the best player we’ve ever had. What do we do without her — we win the league anyway.”
In her 16th season, coach Faith Mimnaugh has nurtured the program from one that won just six games in her first season and went though a 16-year stretch, predating Mimnaugh, without a winning record to a perennial title contender in the Big West.
Mimnaugh recalled watching her players cut down the nets after the championship game victory at Honda Center in Anaheim and said she visualized the team building on what prior rosters had accomplished in the past.
“I could mentally see this team standing on the shoulders of the last team and that team standing on the shoulders of the previous team.
“Nothing could be better than seeing how this program has developed.”