As exciting as the Blue-Green Rivalry has been for the Central Coast, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team has done its part to make the twice-annual meeting with UC Santa Barbara as one-sided as possible.
The Mustangs open Big West Conference play at 7 p.m. Thursday inside the Events Center Thunderdome, and they’re aiming for their 10th consecutive victory over the Gauchos. It will be an important first step in Cal Poly’s pursuit of an eighth straight top-three finish in the nine-team conference this season.
“I think that we’ve had some good progress,” 19th-year head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “I see it almost on a daily basis, whether it’s an individual player or collectively the team.”
Three more wins will put Mimnaugh at 150 Big West victories for her career, the most in the conference by a wide margin. She credits assistant coach Kristin Iwanaga for preparing this year’s team with a challenging nonconference schedule that included games at No. 11 Oregon State and No. 21 Cal.
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The Mustangs (7-6) are one of four teams in the Big West to win seven nonconference games, along with defending champion Hawaii, UC Davis and UC Riverside. Four of Cal Poly’s losses have come against teams ranked in the top 50 of the 349 Division I programs in the NCAA RPI.
Mimnaugh pointed to the Mustangs’ 87-83 overtime defeat at Saint Mary’s (No. 38 in the RPI) as “probably our best game of the season so far.” She said matching up with elite opponents helps a relatively young Cal Poly team understand what it takes compete at the highest level.
“For us to go into overtime with (Saint Mary’s),” Mimnaugh said, “I think it portends your ability to dream about a championship. I was very, very pleased with our progress all along the way.”
Junior forward Hannah Gilbert is coming off a career game against Sacramento State in the nonconference finale. In scoring 23 points and grabbing 17 rebounds, Gilbert was named the Big West Conference Player of the Week on Monday. For the season, the Morro Bay graduate is averaging 12.2 points and leads the conference with 9.6 rebounds per game.
Senior guards Lisa Marie Sanchez and Beth Balbierz are among the most efficient 3-point shooters in the conference, ranking second and sixth in that category, respectively. Sanchez averages 9.6 points and 4.3 assists, and shoots better than 42 percent from beyond the arc.
Mimnaugh said she still wants to see improvement from the Mustangs in terms of overall decision making. Limiting turnovers will help keep Cal Poly in most conference games, and perhaps lead to a top-two seed in the conference tournament two months from now.
“I’ve seen some growth in that area.” Mimnaugh said. “Coach (Kari) Duperron’s in charge of our dribble-drive offense, and she does a great job breaking things down, helping the players see what they’re supposed to be looking for as far as rotations and who’s going to be open.”
Here’s a look at the other eight teams in the Big West Conference:
Long Beach State (11-3)
The 49ers finished their nonconference schedule with four straight victories, becoming the only Big West team to reach the 10-win threshold. Under seventh-year head coach Jody Wynn, Long Beach State has proven to be one of the stingiest defensive teams in the conference. Ten times this season, the 49ers have held opponents to 60 points or fewer. All-Big West junior Raven Benton is a versatile scorer, and she went for a career-high 31 points in a Dec. 20 loss to UNLV.
UC Davis (7-6)
Senior center Alyson Doherty averages 12.7 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds per game. She’s a 1,000-point scorer and has a chance to finish her career on the Aggies’ top 10 all-time scoring and rebounding lists. UC Davis has benefited from the arrival of freshman forward Morgan Bertsch, who leads the conference in field goal percentage (58.1) and is fourth in scoring (13.4 points per game).
The Rainbow Warriors were the going-away favorite to win the conference in the preseason coaches poll, receiving 13 of a possible 17 first-place votes. The defending conference champions took on arguably the most challenging nonconference schedule of any Big West team and played traditional powers Arizona State, South Carolina, BYU and Texas A&M. Hawaii, the No. 1 rebounding team in the Big West, begins conference play having won four of its last five games.
UC Riverside (7-7)
The Highlanders might have the two best offensive players in the conference in Rejane Verin and Brittany Crain. Verin, a 6-foot-1 junior forward, leads the Big West in scoring a 17.7 points per game, is second in field goal percentage (49.5) and fourth in rebounding (7.9). Crain, a senior guard, has made a conference-best 34 3-pointers, is second in scoring (17.7) and ninth in rebounding (6.1). Not surprising, UC Riverside leads the Big West in nearly every major offensively category.
UC Irvine (3-11)
It’s been a tough season for the Anteaters, who enter conference play on a six-game losing streak. Junior forward Mokun Fajemisin, a second-team all-conference performer a year ago, leads UC Irvine in scoring (9.0), rebounding (8.3) and blocks (1.8) per game. The Anteaters will need to take a step forward offensively after averaging less than 58 points per contest during nonconference play.
UC Santa Barbara (3-11)
First-year head coach Bonnie Hendrickson took over the Gauchos following an 11-year stint at Kansas. She inherited a new-look roster that includes eight underclassmen, and that inexperience showed against a slate of difficult nonconference opponents. UC Santa Barbara enters Big West play having won back-to-back games for the first time this season.
Cal State Fullerton (2-12)
The Titans are young as well, with one senior and two juniors on the roster. They’ve committed a Big West-worst 21.3 turnovers per game and enter conference play on a 12-game losing streak. Freshman Michelle Berry has been one of the few bright spots. She ranks third in the conference in scoring (14.4) and second in rebounding (8.6).
Cal State Northridge (2-12)
It’s a new era for the two-time defending Big West Tournament champion Matadors. One of the most successful classes in school history graduated last spring after winning 74 games, two conference tournament titles and one regular season championship. Now one of the youngest teams in the country, CSUN has started at least three underclassmen on a consistent basis. Sophomores Tessa Boagni and Serafina Maulupe each average more than 11 points per game.