ANAHEIM — The Cal State Northridge women’s basketball team cut down the nets for the first time in the Big West Conference.
A fourth-year coach led a junior-laden squad to the top by vanquishing the defending champion.
“This story is all about these young ladies,” Matadors head coach Jason Flowers said.
This story, however, can’t be.
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While the celebratory music flooded the arena floor at Honda Center, it also leaked through the corridors, permeated the concrete and vibrated the bowels of the bleachers, where the tear-filled post-game news conference was being held for the losing team.
Cal Poly won the Big West Conference Tournament for the first time last year, but this time, the Mustangs had to witness Cal State Northridge do the same after suffering a 73-58 loss in the title game.
For Cal Poly, memories of last year’s triumph swirled with another championship loss in 2011 and left the Mustangs feeling empty.
“It’s just not a good feeling at all,” senior center Molly Schlemer said. “It just brings back bad memories, and I would rather be feeling like that out there.”
Sweeping Cal Poly (18-13) in three meetings this season, Cal State Northridge simply had the Mustangs’ number. The Matadors (18-14) stormed to a double-digit lead within the first seven minutes, pushed that advantage to as many as 20 on three different occasions and cruised most of the way.
It was reminiscent of an 83-57 blowout win for Cal State Northridge at Mott Athletics Center in mid-February, but Cal Poly did fight back to within six in the final five minutes on the strength of a heroic run by guard Ariana Elegado.
The earlier meeting “was crap,” Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh said, “and I think our team would say to you that they played like crap, that I coached like crap. It was just crap. No other way to say it.
“Today, we competed. We just didn’t have our offensive game where shots were falling for us. I thought our defense was solid. We shot 33 percent, and sometimes you have those games where nothing’s really falling for you, and that was one of those days today.”
Percentages were worse in the first half, but the game was never out of reach.
Cal Poly shot 19.4 percent from the floor in the first half, missing all five of its 3-point attempts. Schlemer was 0 for 8 before the break, and still, the Mustangs trailed by just 12 to start the second half.
Cal State Northridge wouldn’t let Cal Poly get that close again until an Elegado jumper made it 62-50 with 5:43 left.
Elegado, who joined Schlemer on the all-tournament team, scored a team-high 23, including 5-of-7 shooting on 3-pointers.
She hit two 3s and another deep jump shot on consecutive possessions in a span of 1:20 to cut the Matadors lead to 62-56 with 4:23 left.
The San Diego product seemed spurred by the dozens of raucous family members occupying section 223.
In the moment, Elegado’s shooting was surreal. With that kind of emotion and success, it’s hard to believe the junior may decide to skip her senior season of eligibility after she graduates this spring.
Though she has yet to make her final decision — and Cal Poly still has at least one more game to play in the WNIT — Elegado said before the tournament that the hardest part about walking away would be the joy she shared with her family full of supporters.
“I thought that was everything,” Elegado said of her rooting section.
She choked back tears to describe the feelings.
“It felt really good. I thought that was everything. I wish we could have came up, but we fell short. Just having my family there, I thought we had the momentum. I thought we all had energy, but you can’t win everything in life.”
Cal Poly expects to find out its draw for the WNIT late Monday, and though the Mustangs received the Big West’s automatic berth to the postseason tournament with its second-place finish, Mimnaugh said she expects additional conference teams to receive invites.
Tournament MVP Ashlee Guay had a game-high 25 points, six assists and six rebounds for Cal State Northridge, which also got 17 points from all-tournament honoree Janae Sharp.
In a scary scene, Cal Poly sophomore guard Beth Balbierz left Honda Center on a stretcher after the game and was taken to a nearby hospital for analysis. Mimnaugh said Balbierz had experienced dizziness.
It was unclear what caused the symptoms, and her condition was unknown when she left the arena.
Schlemer finished with nine points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Senior guard Jonae Ervin had 10 points and six rebounds in her third appearance in a conference tournament title game.
Cal Poly’s big three of Ervin, Elegado and Schlemer have helped usher in unprecedented success for the Mustangs.
“For these ladies to be here three of the last four years is a testament to their great basketball play and the warrior attitude,” Mimnaugh said, “the attitude of ‘Let’s go.’ They’ve been emotionally engaged and tremendous leaders for Cal Poly.
“There’s a heck of a lot of wins right there, each of them over 1,000 points in scoring. Ana still has a year of eligibility left should she choose to come back.”