Cal Poly

Cal Poly women’s basketball team focusing on defense following loss to Hawaii

Cal Poly women’s basketball hosts Hawaii in a Big West Conference game Thursday night at Mott Athletics Center.
Cal Poly women’s basketball hosts Hawaii in a Big West Conference game Thursday night at Mott Athletics Center. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

It will be another three weeks before the Cal Poly women’s basketball team plays on its home court again, leaving the Mustangs to iron out their shortcomings on the road during the heart of the Big West Conference schedule.

That’s been easier said than done for Cal Poly, which is winless in its eight games outside of Mott Athletics Center this season. And perhaps that’s why head coach Faith Mimnaugh seemed particularly disappointed following Thursday night’s loss to Hawaii, the Mustangs’ lone home matchup during a five-game stretch.

But the new-look Rainbow Warriors — who returned two starters and five players overall from last year’s Big West Tournament championship team — were eager to break out of their own 0-for-7 slump on the road. They did just that, making 14 of their first 19 shots from the field en route to an 87-79 victory.

“I think a lot of it is effort,” Mimnaugh said after speaking to her team for more than 40 minutes following the loss. “They’re good athletes, but I don’t know that they’re that far superior. They made us look like we were in junior high school and they were in college.”

What frustrated Mimnaugh was the Mustangs’ focus defensively.

The 87 points Hawaii scored were 31 more than its season average (56.1) entering Thursday’s contest. Junior guard Sarah Toeaina (25 points, six assists, three rebounds) and senior point guard Briana Harris (24 points, six rebounds, four assists) both reached their scoring averages during a 43-point first half.

Though Cal Poly would rally to within five points during the final minute — after sending the visitors to the free-throw line 27 times in the fourth quarter — it wasn’t quite enough to avoid a third consecutive defeat.

“I think defensively we need to get better at making sure we’re tight on our (opponents),” junior guard Lynn Leaupepe said, “and just knowing who is hurting us and stopping them before they get hot.”

Leaupepe did her part to keep the Mustangs together on offense.

She scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds, both team highs, with one turnover in 31 minutes. Leaupepe reached the 20-point mark for the fourth time this season and has scored in double figures in 10 of the last 11 games. One more rebound would have given Leaupepe her team-leading sixth double-double of the season.

Senior forward and former Morro Bay High School standout Hannah Gilbert also continued to etch her name deeper into the Cal Poly record books. The 6-foot-3 Gilbert scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds, and is now 11 points away from becoming the 13th player in program history to score 1,000 career points.

Gilbert’s 589 rebounds already rank No. 8 all-time, and she’s on track to surpass Russia Madden, who collected 605 rebounds from 1986 to 1990, before the season ends.

Looking forward, the Mustangs go to CSUN at 4 p.m. Saturday and will then get a rematch with Hawaii in Honolulu on Jan. 28. When they return home the first week on February, Big West-leading UC Davis and last year’s regular season champion UC Riverside will be visiting.

Mimnaugh said she wants to “do a better job of mixing up” Cal Poly’s zone and man-to-man defenses to keep opponents from settling into an offensive rhythm.

While speedy guards Dye Stahley and Gabby Grupalo are both talented on-ball defenders, the Mustangs’ defensive rotations against Hawaii allowed for too many uncontested shots.

“We just need to find that mindset that we really are better than what we’re showing right now,” Leaupepe said. “I think we really need to find what really works for us and try to keep up with that.”

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