When Beth Balbierz hit three heroic 3-pointers in the final minutes Thursday, it was enough to inspire belief that the Cal Poly women’s basketball team had all the momentum in a potentially pivotal game.
The sophomore guard was riding high. The outside-shooting specialist had seen her 3-point performance dip to 32.7 percent this season after a recent slump.
After UC Davis took its first second-half lead with 5:16 to go, Balbierz came off the bench and hit all three shots in a span of two minutes to put the Mustangs back on top.
“It was live or die by the 3; it kind of felt like towards the end,” Balbierz said. “Each team was hitting their 3s. It was bouncing back and forth, a one-point game this way, one-point game that way.”
Belying the nip-and-tuck nature of the contest, it was an eight-point game by the end, and Balbierz’s shots turned out to be fool’s gold.
UC Davis responded with three late 3-pointers of its own and pulled away for a 77-69 victory at Mott Athletics Center, delivering a blow to Cal Poly’s hopes of earning a top-two seed for the Big West Conference Tournament.
Cal Poly (15-12, 9-5 Big West) had led most of the way. On a hot-shooting start by Ariana Elegado, who hit her first four 3-point attempts of the game and five of her first six, the Mustangs had a 13-point first-half lead.
“Once I make one, I’m like ‘OK, let me try to shoot another one and see if I can make that,’ ” Elegado said. “I just kept making it. I was like ‘Wow, this could be it. Let’s put the dagger in them.
“I thought we definitely had that game. We were up 13. We let them come back, but at the end of the day, we should have locked down on defense. We should have taken each possession and attacked more and got to the free-throw line.”
But before UC Davis (12-14, 7-6 Big West) lived right along with Balbierz at the 3-point line late, the Aggies kept it close by getting to the free-throw line and sending Cal Poly post player Molly Schlemer to the bench in the process.
The reigning Big West Player of the Year, Schlemer came into the game averaging a team-high 17.8 points. After scoring six points in the first half, Schlemer quickly picked up her third and fourth fouls during a span where Cal Poly was whistled for three fouls in 15 seconds. She played just six minutes in the second half.
Without Schlemer’s inside presence, the Mustangs had trouble drawing fouls, and UC Davis attacked the paint at will.
The Aggies were 14 of 16 from the free-throw line in the second half. Cal Poly was 0-1 after the break as UC Davis had just two fouls called against it until the final 2:43. The Mustangs fouled 13 times in the second half.
“Yeah, that’s pretty amazing,” Mimnaugh said of the disparity.
“If we’re only shooting 3s and jump shots, we never give the officials the chance to help us.”
Sydnee Fipps, who was a perfect 8 for 8 at the free-throw line and hit three 3-pointers, scored a game-high 23 points for UC Davis. Aggies post player Alyson Doherty dominated with Schlemer on the bench, scoring 22 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking three shots.
Celia Marfone, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds, made a huge impact for UC Davis. Marfone countered the final 3-pointer by Balbierz with her own 3 from the corner and converted a three-point play driving the lane on the next possession to create a six-point swing and give the Aggies a 71-67 lead with 46 seconds left.
Jonae Ervin scored 16 points for Cal Poly and became the 11th player in program history to surpass the 1,000-point mark in her career. She ranks 11th in program history in scoring behind Schlemer in 10th. Ervin and Elegado tied for a game-high five assists, and Schlemer finished with 10 points and six rebounds.
Taryn Garza had six points, seven rebounds and five blocks for the Mustangs. Balbierz finished with nine points.
The Mustangs entered the game in a first-place tie with Cal State Northridge but fell to second with the loss. With two games left in the regular season, including Saturday’s home finale against UC Irvine, Cal Poly is potentially one loss away from falling out of second place.
The top two teams in the conference standings receive byes to the semifinals of the Big West Tournament in March. The third and fourth-place teams would need to win an additional game to take the tournament title and the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
“We are thinking about it because we want to have the byes,” Elegado said. “We want to clinch at least for second, but we know every game is tough. Any team can beat any team. It’s up in the air.”