When the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced Monday, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team was encouraged by its No. 14 seed.
To the Mustangs (21-10), it meant they had a chance.
Some of the optimism, however, was tempered as Cal Poly sent leading scorer Molly Schlemer to the health center this week, and the team learned more about No. 3 Penn State (25-5), the Mustangs’ first-round opponent in the Spokane Region.
Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said Schlemer, the reigning Big West Conference Player of the Year who’s averaging 13 points and 7.2 rebounds, was unable to practice Tuesday after experiencing fever and lower-back pain.
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Mimnaugh said the cause of the symptoms was somewhat mysterious, but she traced the onset of the back pain to a play in the Big West Tournament championship game where Schlemer was knocked to the ground by Pacific’s Kendall Rodriguez.
Of course, the second-seeded Mustangs went on to beat the top-seeded Tigers 63-49 to earn the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in program history.
Schlemer returned to the practice floor before Cal Poly’s Friday departure for Baton Rouge, La., where the Mustangs will play the Lions at 2:15 p.m. on ESPN2.
Schlemer is probable to play, Mimnaugh said, but she is not expected to be at full strength, and Cal Poly will be sorely missing several other injured players against Penn State, the Big Ten Conference regular-season champion.
The Lions were hoping for a No. 2 seed when brackets were announced, and they have the size and athletic advantage at ever y position against the Mustangs.
“They’re a great program,” Mimnaugh said, “and have every resource to be a great program. We’re the new kids on the block. We’re going to take our shot. If you’re going to play them a ton of times, they would definitely hold the advantage. We just have to be all hot on the same day, and a lot of things have to go right, and hopefully we can be disruptive enough to make things go wrong for them.”
Penn State is led by 5-foot-10 forward Maggie Lucas, who averages 20.5 points and 4.6 rebounds.
Lucas would have been the defensive matchup for 5-10 Cal Poly senior Kayla Griffin, but Griffin was lost to a knee injury early in the second half of the tournament victory over Pacific.
Six-foot senior Brittany Woodard might have also drawn the assignment, but she was lost to a torn ACL in a midseason game against the Tigers.
Cal Poly has also been without 6-3 freshman Maddie Allen for most of the year after she broke her hand earlier this season.
Mustangs guards Ariana Elegado and Jonae Ervin have helped spearhead the attack along with Schlemer.
Elegado, a sophomore, played with Penn State’s Gizelle Studevent at La Jolla Country Day High and against Studevent when the Lions senior transferred to the Bishops School to finish her prep career.
Elegado, who averages 12.3 points and leads Cal Poly with 72 3-pointers, said she has not reached out to her former teammate and has remained as businesslike as possible in the hopes of pulling off the upset.
If the Mustangs had been matched up against overall top seed Baylor, “I think everyone would just be happy to be here,” Elegado said. “but this week our practice has not changed from the Big West. We still treat this game like every other game.
“Our mentality is we can pull off an upset. I believe in miracle stories. Us being a 14 seed gives us hope. It’s the first time we’re in the NCAA Tournament in school history, but we all believe we can pull the upset.”
Penn State’s size figures to be a big problem for Cal Poly. The Lions’ smallest player is 5-7 guard Alex Bentley, who averages 14 points and leads the team with 106 steals.
Ervin, Cal Poly’s shortest, is just 5-3. The junior ranks third in the nation with a 2.64 assist-toturnover ratio, and she will be counted on to handle the ball even more without Griffin, who often led the fast break after defensive rebounds and remained in the backcourt to relieve pressure when necessary.
Penn State thrives on pressuring the opposing team’s guards, denying passing lanes and using its post players to double the ball-handler on ball screens.
The Mustangs’ best chance to keep up on the scoreboard is to score in transition, but to do that, they will have to force missed shots and secure rebounds.
“This is not a situation where we’re going to be panicked about our opportunities or stressing about winning or losing,” Mimnaugh said. “The only pressure we’re going to face is the pressure defense from Penn State. Nobody expects us to win. Maybe Penn State will overlook us. Perhaps we’ll bring our best game, and you never know.”