Members of the Cal Poly women’s basketball team celebrated as much as anyone on the Honda Center floor when the men’s team clinched its spot in the NCAA Tournament by taking the Big West Conference Tournament title Saturday night.
Watching the women share in the revelry, it’d be hard to surmise how they’d suffered a heartbreaking defeat in their own title game just hours earlier.
After the Mustangs made their NCAA Tournament debut last season, they’ll now have to settle for a berth in the WNIT, where they will give junior guard Ariana Elegado a homecoming in a 6 p.m. first-round matchup at San Diego.
“We came to practice really flat,” Elegado said Tuesday after Cal Poly returned to Mott Athletics Center for the first time since a 73-58 loss to Cal State Northridge in the conference tournament final. “Everyone was obviously still bummed. We were still talking about that loss. In our minds, we still wanted to win that. I kept talking about it for the past three days and probably won’t stop talking about it.”
For Elegado, a San Diego native who grew up rooting for and dreaming of becoming one of the Toreros, emotions are running high. She has yet to announce whether she will return for her senior season or move on after graduation.
But she was far from the only one in mourning, a signal of just how far the program has come in the past five years.
It was just four seasons ago Cal Poly (18-13) made its postseason debut, hosting Cal to open the WNIT in a monumental moment for the program. After a 16-year stretch without a winning season ended in 2008-09, the Mustangs have participated in the postseason each of the past four years.
“Yeah, I was thinking about that I don’t remember it being such a big deal,” senior center Molly Schlemer said, “but now that I look a back at it, it was pretty crazy. I was on a team that made the postseason all four years. The game against Cal was at home. It just felt like a regular game.
“It’s kind of silly that we’re so disappointed in not making the NCAA Tournament because so many people on Cal Poly years past have dreamed of making postseasons, but it was just a tough way of making postseason because we all wanted to go to the dance so bad.”
Now, the focus shifts toward establishing another first.
Yes, the Mustangs have made postseason berths a regular occurrence, but they have yet to win a game in one of those national tournaments.
Cal Poly lost in that WNIT opener against Cal, dropped another WNIT game at Washington the following year and fell 85-55 to Penn State in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament.
For this crop of Mustangs seniors, which also includes 1,000-point scorer Jonae Ervin and Nwamaka Ofodu, a former walk-on who earned a spot in the starting lineup, it feels natural that they break another barrier before their time is up.
“At first, I was definitely bummed,” Ofodu said. “Of course, I want the NCAA. As I thought more about it, we get to play more games. The longer I get to play basketball, I don’t have to start the real world yet. I’m just hoping that our energy will feed off to the younger kids, and they’ll be just as pumped to do some damage in the tournament.
“We’ve never won a postseason game, so our first goal is winning the game, and I think at this point, that’s kind of our only goal.”
To do it, they’ll have to go through San Diego (22-8).
The Toreros finished the regular season in a two-way tie for fourth with Saint Mary’s in West Coast Conference standings but lost 60-58 to the Gaels in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
San Diego opened the season with a 15-game winning streak but has lost eight of 15 since.
The Toreros and Mustangs did not play this season, but Cal Poly dominated the previous meeting, a 69-50 Mustangs victory last season.
Led by 6-foot senior guard Amy Kame’s 16.6 points per game, San Diego has four players averaging double digits. Sophomore guard Malina Hood is the Toreros’ lone outside threat.
Hood has 69 of the team’s 113 3-pointers this season. No one else has more than 14.
Cal Poly will be without the services of sophomore guard Beth Balbierz, who was taken off the court on a stretcher after the Big West title game. Balbierz said she suffered heart palpitations but that tests had yet to reveal any negative conditions.
She was with the team when it left for San Diego on Wednesday afternoon.
Hood and twin sister Maya are former teammates of Elegado’s from La Jolla Country Day School, which is just a 15-minute drive from the Toreros’ campus. Elegado said her high school coach is bringing the current team to watch the game.
She also expects to have a large family following in attendance. There were dozens of Elegado supporters in the stands at Honda Center as she caught fire to help Cal Poly make a run at the lead in the second half against Cal State Northridge.
Elegado said she plans to reveal her decision after spring break, but in a game that could be her last in a Mustangs jersey, Elegado couldn’t dream of a better scenario.
“I thought it was meant to be,” Elegado said when she saw the bracket pairing. “How ironic that out of everyone, we play at San Diego, which is where I’m from. I just started laughing. This is unbelievable. I had to look at it at least three times to make sure. What are the odds?”