The Cal Poly women’s basketball team has had Saturday’s Big West Conference Tournament final rematch with CSUN circled on the calendar pretty much since the Matadors beat the Mustangs en route to an NCAA Tournament berth last March.
Cal Poly identified the matchup as the premier home game of the season and launched a marketing campaign aimed at breaking the home attendance record for the 4 p.m. game.
T-shirts are being distributed, a viral video was produced and other on-campus athletic programs are boosting awareness with social media photos pledging their support.
Now that the big game is only a few days away, though, it might just be dwarfing the arrival of an even better opponent to Mott Athletics Center.
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The Mustangs host Long Beach State (15-1, 2-0 Big West) at 7 tonight, and the 49ers own the best résumé of any conference opponent so far this season.
Long Beach State comes in having won 13 straight. The 49ers’ only blemish was an overtime loss to USC in the third game of the season, and they are 2-1 against the Pac-12 with an overtime victory over Cal and a regulation win over Colorado.
CSUN (11-5, 1-1 Big West) already has a conference loss and is looking up at both Long Beach State and Cal Poly (7-7, 2-0 Big West) in the standings.
“I would have to give the edge a little bit,” Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh said, “to Long Beach State as far as personnel, depth, variation in what they can do. Again, I’m sure Northridge has a lot to say to counter that, but they’re very, very talented. They’ve got size, speed, changing ability; they’ve got 3-point shooting in every spot. It’s really difficult to guard them.”
Receiving votes in The AP Top 25, the 49ers are not just tough to guard. They are dominating on defense, changing schemes on the fly and confusing opposing offenses.
Long Beach State leads the Big West in scoring defense (58.9 points per game), steals per game (10.7) and 3-point percentage defense (23.6 percent), and the 49ers are second to the Matadors in overall field-goal percentage defense (37.7).
Long Beach State was hit hard by injuries during a sixth-place conference finish last season. “They had five redshirts last year,” Cal Poly senior guard Ariana Elegado said. “Now, they’re all back. So, they have a really experienced team.
“Their defense has gotten way better. They always have their hands up consistently. I just feel like they have great leaders on their team and are a great coached team.”
The Mustangs haven’t the stats to match Long Beach State. The greatest commodity Cal Poly can currently boast is improved chemistry and confidence.
Since a four-game losing streak over winter break, the Mustangs have won three straight, their longest winning streak of the season.
They’ve learned how to win late in victories over CSU Bakersfield and Hawaii and ran away from hapless rival UC Santa Barbara (0-14, 0-1 Big West). This comes after replacing three starters and incorporating three newcomers into the regular 10-woman rotation.
The Mustangs were picked to finish third in the conference preseason poll after losing former standouts Molly Schlemer and Jonae Ervin. Wins this week would put Cal Poly in the early driver’s seat for another Big West crown.
“If we get one or two wins this weekend, it will make a big statement,” Elegado said. “Everyone thought we weren’t going to be good this year. We have a young team, inexperienced, but I really think we are a great team. I feel like we can beat every team in the conference. I’m super confident in our play lately.”
Though Mimnaugh remains focused on Long Beach State, the buzz has been building to the CSUN game, where the Mustangs are hoping to draw more than 2,552.
That attendance record was set in the 2010-11 regular-season finale when the visiting Gauchos snatched a share of the Big West crown, denying Cal Poly a chance to win it outright.
Last season, the Mustangs were hoping to make their second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, but CSUN ended up as the undisputed champion, beating Cal Poly in all three of the teams’ meetings, including a 73-58 victory in the championship game of the conference tournament.
Cal Poly is hoping for all the support it can get to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
“We know playing at Long Beach and playing at Northridge is going to be tougher,” Elegado said. “It’s crucial that we get these wins at home.”
Said Mimnaugh: “It’s going to be really challenging for us to get any wins this week, but I like our team, and I like our optimism as well.”