ANAHEIM — The Cal Poly women’s basketball team cut down the Honda Center nets last year. That was the Mustangs’ advantage.
More than anyone else, they were comfortable in the high-stakes environment of playing the Big West Conference Tournament at the pro arena and with an NCAA Tournament berth awaiting the winner. Theoretically.
In reality, Cal Poly struggled to adapt to playing in the home of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, but maybe in turning away Hawaii with a 66-52 semifinal victory
Friday, the Mustangs were able to rid themselves of any jitters heading into today’s 1 p.m. championship game against top-seeded Cal State Northridge.
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“Some games are like that,” Mustangs senior center Molly Schlemer said. “We just start off really slow. But just getting the hang of the game and what kind of tempo it would take to win the game. It took us a little while, but we finally did it. It took us longer than we wanted to.”
The Mustangs missed their first eight shots from the field. It took them 6:51 to sink their first basket, and the poor shooting carried over into a 1-for-13 effort overall from 3-point range.
The saving grace for Cal Poly: Hawaii struggled far worse.
The Rainbow Wahine were scoreless for the first three minutes, and seemingly abandoning a season-long strategy, Hawaii attempted an assault from outside.
Averaging just 11.2 3-point attempts this season, the Wahine chucked 20 shots in the game. They shot just 25.9 percent from the field in the first half and finished just 19 for 61 overall.
Each team had only three points in the first five minutes. It was 9-9 midway through the first half.
That’s when Cal Poly began to pull away. With Hawaii leading 11-9, the Mustangs started a 15-2 run that featured two layups inside by Schlemer. Led by Jonae Ervin, who was 5 of 6 from the free-throw line, Cal Poly started attacking the paint.
The Mustangs led 24-19 at the break with eight of their points coming on free throws.
“We were taking too many 3s in the first half, especially with them in foul trouble,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “We wanted to get to the line.”
Said junior guard Ariana Elegado: “We wanted to feed it to Molly, get her some post looks. … Our gameplan was to attack.”
Schlemer took over in the second half.
Scoring 21 of her game-high 29 points after the break, Schlemer helped the Mustangs push their lead to 12 points nine minutes into the second.
Elegado scored 20, and despite shooting 1 for 5 on 3s, she was 6 for 12 on 2-point field goals and went 5 for 5 from the free-throw line.
Schlemer grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds, and Ervin, who scored the first five Cal Poly points while the Mustangs struggled offensively, finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.
Cal Poly’s big three accounted for all but six points of its final total. Senior guard Nwamaka Ofodu scored four and junior Kristen Ale had two points.
With four seniors in their starting lineup who’ve been around long enough to see Cal Poly play in three Big West Tournament title games, the Mustangs may still have an experience advantage over Cal State Northridge.
“Freshman year, we lost in the championship, and it was not fun watching UC Davis cut down the nets,” Schlemer said. “Just knowing that’s what’ll happen if you lose, it’s just there’s a lot more mental game in it.”
Then again, the Matadors earned a two-game sweep over Cal Poly this season, including an 83-57 victory that started a stretch where the Mustangs lost three straight and four of five.
In that mid-February game, Cal State Northridge easily pulled out to a double-digit lead, grew it to 18 with an 8-0 run midway through the first half and went into the break on a 15-4 run and with a 54-29 lead.
The Mustangs seemed determined not to allow a repeat performance.
“It was really coaching on my part to be honest,” Mimnaugh said. “I let the lead get too much, and the team pushed the panic button. I put it all on my shoulders.”
Said Schlemer: “We didn’t fight back at all. We just laid down, and I don’t see us doing that again.”