This is why Ariana Elegado came back to Cal Poly.
She scored a game-high 22 points in a grudge match with CSUN on Saturday to avenge a string of three straight losses to the Matadors, and the Mustangs women’s basketball team came away with a 63-54 victory at Mott Athletics Center.
Cal Poly’s fifth-year senior guard had the option of moving on after graduation last summer, but a season-ending loss to CSUN in the Big West Conference Tournament title game last March was one that stuck in her mind.
The fact the Matadors (12-6, 2-2 Big West) brought back their entire team from last season added to the motivation.
“I woke up this morning in a good mood,” Elegado said. “I came to the gym really excited. I had a good feeling about today, especially with all these fans coming out. I really want to pull off this win. It feels so good to get this W, especially with losing to them in the championship game.”
Saturday’s was a trademark performance, one in front of a large crowd spurred by an awareness campaign driven by T-shirts and hash tags that Elegado helped spearhead all this week.
She led the marketing. Then, seemingly every time the Mustangs (8-8, 3-1 Big West) needed a big shot, she was there to make it.
Elegado was 9 of 18 from the floor, including two 3-pointers, and had five rebounds, four assists and a game-high four steals. After Cal Poly saw a 14-point first-half lead turn into a deficit less than 3½ minutes into the second half, Elegado nailed the driving jumper that gave the Mustangs the lead for good with 12:42 left.
“This kid is just unbelievable,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “She’s a great player, one of the best that I’ve ever coached and so much fun. She’s fun to be around, she’s fun to coach and she’s fun to watch.”
An announced 2,047 were in attendance, the second-highest total in program history. The campaign to capture fans was based around the notion of breaking the attendance record. The 2010-11 regular-season finale against UC Santa Barbara still owns that distinction, having drawn 2,552.
Mimnaugh estimated that close to 1,000 of the fans at the record game came from Santa Barbara, and credited the local community for responding to the program’s plea for support this time around.
Another difference between the two games: Cal Poly lost that one to the Gauchos.
On Saturday, the Mustangs controlled the Matadors from the start.
In the first 5½ minutes of the game, all five of Cal Poly’s starters scored, and the Mustangs led 12-4.
The lead was cut to three but Cal Poly went on a run and when Elegado hit a jumper, the Mustangs led 29-15 with 6:13 left before the break.
That’s when CSUN roared back. The Matadors held Cal Poly to a single point for the next six minutes.
The lead shrunk to six at the half, and Katelin King hit a 3-pointer that gave CSUN a 34-32 lead with 16:46 remaining.
But King would finish just 1 for 9 from 3-point range, and although the Matadors got a team-high 15 points and 11 points apiece from reigning Big West Player of the Year Ashlee Guay and Janae Sharpe, Cal Poly quickly turned it around.
“We knew we didn’t want to give up,” Elegado said, “and we knew we couldn’t lose this at home. As soon as we started getting on a roll and started hitting our shots, we just came out with energy. We didn’t want to let up.”
Beth Balbierz sank a 3-pointer, Elegado hit the shot to retake the lead, and Atascadero High product Mary Kate Evans made another 3-pointer to stretch the lead back out to four midway through the second half.
The flurry was part of a 15-0 run that ended with the Mustangs back up 49-38. The Matadors would cut it to four twice more, but the first time Balbierz hit another 3, and the second, Taryn Garza made a pair of free throws on the following possessions.
Senior guard Kristen Ale was the only other Cal Poly player in double digits, scoring 10 and grabbing a team-high six rebounds.
Coming off a career-high 27 points in Thursday’s loss to Long Beach State, Dynn Leaupepe scored eight points, and Balbierz finished with six.
Hannah Gilbert and Garza combined for just seven points in the post, but CSUN packing it in allowed Elegado to score consistently and for her to assist on both 3s by Balbierz.
“Both the Long Beach State team and the Northridge team were excellent in dropping down and covering post play,” Mimnaugh said. “So, she wasn’t going to get her usual no-look dump passes because they’re brilliant at getting the drops so quick. So, it was going to be either her pull-up jump shots or get in the paint and kick instead of dump passes.”