Coming off overtime victory, Cal Poly women’s basketball turns attention to UC Davis

Cal Poly’s Lynn Leaupepe shoots over CSUN’s Katelin King during a Big West Conference women’s basketball Thursday night at Mott Athletics Center.
Cal Poly’s Lynn Leaupepe shoots over CSUN’s Katelin King during a Big West Conference women’s basketball Thursday night at Mott Athletics Center.

Throughout Cal Poly’s 66-62 overtime win against Cal State Northridge on Thursday night, 19th-year head coach Faith Mimnaugh emphasized making the simple plays.

The Mustangs were pursuing their sixth consecutive home victory against a young and physically talented Matadors team that is among the tallest in the Big West Conference this season.

Cal State Northridge used its length to disrupt Cal Poly’s flow offensively, turning to a full-court press throughout a stagnant first half that featured a combined 28 turnovers and 19 fouls.

“I don’t know why they get so juiced,” Mimnaugh said. “I think they just like to put white hairs on my head or something.”

The Mustangs (10-7, 3-1 Big West) regrouped in the second half and limited their turnovers to five over the next 25 minutes of play. When it looked like the Matadors (2-16, 0-4 Big West) were about to end their seven-game losing streak with a late 3-pointer from Katelin King, Cal Poly leaned on its experience down the stretch.

Trailing 58-55 near the end of regulation, fifth-year senior guard Beth Balbierz made a deep 3-pointer from the right wing with 1.1 seconds remaining to send the Mustangs to their first overtime game inside Mott Athletics Center this season.

In the extra period, Cal Poly’s Hannah Gilbert scored twice in the key to give the Mustangs a four-point cushion, and she anchored a defensive effort that held Cal State Northridge scoreless for the first 3 minutes and 53 seconds of overtime.

“I think we were really locked in defensively once we got that quick score,” Mimnaugh said. “I think there was a little breathing room, and maybe when we got four, then I felt like it just seemed like their body language changed to maybe a little bit discouraged.”

It’s been that kind of year for the rebuilding Matadors.

The two-time defending Big West Tournament champions graduated a large senior class last spring that won 74 career games, two conference tournament titles and one Big West regular season championship.

The 26 combined starts on Cal State Northridge’s roster coming into the season were the sixth-fewest in the NCAA. Two freshmen and one sophomore started against Cal Poly, and seven underclassmen played at least 13 minutes in the setback.

Though inexperienced, the Matadors’ height is nearly unmatched in the Big West this winter. They have four players listed at 6-foot-2 or taller, including 6-4 freshman center Channon Fluker from Pasadena.

Gilbert, a 6-3 junior forward, showed time and again she was ready for the challenge.

The Morro Bay native scored a career-high 24 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked three shots in 41 minutes. Gilbert scored 18 of her 24 points after halftime, helping stabilize the Mustangs offensively for long stretches. It was Gilbert’s third 20-point performance in the last five games, and she leads the conference in rebounding at 9.6 per contest.

“These were bigger defenders,” Mimnaugh said. “She met somebody who was actually bigger than her.”

That could be the case again Saturday afternoon — when a veteran UC Davis team visits Mott Athletics Center.

The Aggies (10-7, 3-1 Big West) have arguably the most talented player in the conference in 6-foot-3 senior forward Alyson Doherty. A second-team all-Big West performer last season, Doherty is averaging 12.9 points and 6.5 rebounds in less than 27 minutes per contest.

The emergence of redshirt freshman Morgan Bertsch has been a welcome addition to UC Davis’ frontcourt as well. The 6-foot-4 forward leads the team in scoring at 13.5 points per game and is shooting a Big West-leading 57.9 percent from the field this season.

Sophomore forward Pele Gianotti also averages double-digit scoring, and she’s coming off a 19-point, 10-rebound performance during the Aggies’ 66-59 loss at UC Santa Barbara on Thursday.

“Their size is a real concern for us,” Mimnaugh said. “They also can change up between (man-to-man) and zone and have a really strong 3-2 zone.

“We’re going to have to be able to adjust to whatever they throw at us.”