As far as late-game situations go, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team has gone from hesitant, to competent — and now, downright confident.
The Mustangs showed as much Thursday, opening conference play with a 70-65 victory over Hawaii at Mott Athletics Center. It was the second straight game Cal Poly (6-7, 1-0 Big West Conference) pulled away in the final minutes of a tight contest.
The Mustangs also topped CSU Bakersfield 71-66 in similar fashion on Saturday.
This after starting a four-game losing streak where Cal Poly lost a late lead in an overtime loss to Saint Mary’s and a capped the skid with a two-point defeat at Colorado State.
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“We were able to watch some film from the games that we lost that were real tight and talked about things that we wanted to do at the end of the game,” Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh said.
Those things, namely defensive strategy and focus, appear to be working out.
In Thursday’s back-and-forth game, which featured 12 ties, Hawaii pulled within 62-60 with 4:18 left. Cal Poly immediately responded, pushing the lead back out to eight, and when the Wahine (8-6, 0-1 Big West) got back to within three with 20 seconds left, the Mustangs got the stops they needed and pulled away.
Reserve forward Rachel Koehler had all six of her points on three straight baskets in a span of close to two minutes during the final stretch, making a huge impact after senior Taryn Garza fouled out with five minutes to go.
Losing Garza, the team’s top post defender and rebounder, in such a tight game could have been disastrous. Koehler made sure that it wasn’t.
“That really kept our momentum going,” sophomore post player Hannah Gilbert said. “It was awesome. She went right in, got the rebound putback and just kind of led the team with the momentum to win the game.”
Gilbert carried much of the scoring burden. The 6-foot-3 Morro Bay High product had a career-high 18 points. She played all 40 minutes as backup center Nikki Fausey nurses a shoulder injury. Almost surprisingly, Gilbert didn’t attempt a free throw, though all nine of her baskets and all 20 of her field- goal attempts came from around 5 feet from the basket and in. Gilbert also tied for the team high with six rebounds.
“Hannah is one of our best percentage shooters,” senior guard Ariana Elegado said. “So, we wanted to get her the ball more, but that was never really established. We just knew that she could score. They were helping off the guard a lot and leaving the post open. So, we fed her the ball more.”
Elegado had a game-high 19 points, including two 3-pointers, and added a game-high eight assists. Nobody else on either team had more than a pair of assists.
Elegado moved within seven assists of tying Laura Buehning for second on the program’s all-time list. Elegado needs 84 more to tie former teammate Jonae Ervin for the career record.
She would need to average 5.6 assists per game the rest of the way to reach Ervin by the end of the regular season.
“Elegado just sets the table for everybody else,” Mimnaugh said. “She is big-time, and she played like an MVP today.
“Elegado was just wheeling and dealing. She was in a different zone.”
Hawaii was without leading scorer Shawna-Lei Kuehu, who came into the game averaging 13.5 points.
Still, Hawaii hung tough, going into halftime tied at 29.
The Wahine were led by Briana Harris, who scored 15 points. Destiny King scored 11 and grabbed seven rebounds. Morgan Mason scored 10.
The output was a revelation for Harris, who nailed five 3-pointers against the Mustangs’ zone defense despite coming into the game with just four on the season and shooting 21.1 percent from 3-point range.
“Getting our first win was super important,” Elegado said. “We do have the momentum right now. Our team is just clicking at the right moment.
“Our energy level is way up there. The crowd is going wild. I just feel like it’s a great start to conference, and we feel very confident.”