The Cal Poly women’s basketball team knew it would have to play at potentially its highest level to beat an Illinois team that boasted 6-foot-3 All-American candidate Jenna Smith.
For most of the game the Mustangs met the challenge, but the Fighting Illini took control with a key late run to claim a 56-47 win at the Marriott San Luis Obispo Holiday Beach Classic in Mott Gym on Saturday.
It was only the second time Cal Poly has played a Big 10 school. The Mustangs lost to Iowa, 64-57, in 1981.
The Mustangs (2-2) led by as many as seven points in the second half, but a 20-6 Illinois run to end the game, including six late points by Smith, allowed the Fighting Illini (5-1) to eek out the narrow win.
“Every possession is huge when we’re playing a team like this,” Cal Poly junior forward Kristina Santiago said. “Just that one free layup that they got or the one weakside penetration made the biggest difference in the game.”
Santiago led Cal Poly with 13 points and eight rebounds in a physical game that saw both teams struggle to score in the first half.
After jumping out to their biggest lead at 11-2 with 13:03 remaining in the first half, the Mustangs cooled down as Illinois slowly chipped their way into the game. After starting 1 of 13 from the field, a jumper by Lydia McCully gave the Fighting Illini their first lead at 21-20 with three minutes remaining in the half.
Smith, Illinois’ leading scorer and a 2008 All-American honorable mention player, was held to just four points on 1-of-9 shooting in the first half.
“We knew she was going to be a huge force for their team,” Santiago said. “We really made a point to stop her in the post and get in front of her and have the helpside force her to pass it out and make someone else beat us.”
Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said the Mustangs worked on game planning a way to slow Smith down.
“We’ve been matching (senior forward) Becky Tratter on whoever our opponent’s best post player is,” Mimnaugh said. “She plays very physically and I think that bothers a lot of post players.
“Becky did a good job of dislodging (Smith) and forcing her to get most of her points on the perimeter.”
While Smith struggled early from the field, she was able to contribute in other ways. Her length bothered Cal Poly inside as she managed four blocks and nine rebounds in the first half alone.
“(She played) big,” Mimnaugh said. “We kept trying to go inside but even our biggest kids were getting blocked by her. She has great timing and she’d wait for the double pump, and she’d still be able to manage to sometimes give us a bit of a facial.”
Smith finished with 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting with 13 rebounds and six blocks.
Junior guard Rachel Clancy opened the game by hitting a 3-pointer to set the tone for Cal Poly’s strong opening.
“It was a great momentum builder for us,” Clancy said. “We felt that maybe they weren’t giving us the credit we deserved going into the game, and we wanted to get off to a hot start to show them that they couldn’t overlook us.”Despite the loss, Mimnaugh said she was pleased with the team’s overall effort.
“The heart was there. Sometimes when you want something so desperately it makes it all the more difficult to be relaxed because you’re trying so hard,” Mimnaugh said. “We had major disadvantages in size and speed, but to stay competitive on those areas was tremendous for our team.”
Arkansas-Little Rock 71, Cal Poly 62
The Mustangs dropped their fifth straight game to open the season, all on the road, to the Trojans.
Cal Poly’s only lead of the game was at 1-0. The Mustangs trimmed a 33-27 halftime deficit to 34-32 on a Lorenzo Keeler 3-pointer 43 seconds into the second half and later tied it at 43 on a Kyle Odister 3-pointer with 13:24 remaining.
But Cal Poly couldn’t take the lead, and Arkansas-Little Rock (2-4) did enough over the final 13 minutes to hold off the Mustangs, who will finally play at home Thursday against Seattle, head coach Joe Callero’s former school, at 7 p.m. at Mott Gym.
Keeler led the Mustangs with 20 points, and Odister and Will Donahue each added 13 points. Donahue also grabbed 10 rebounds.
Solomon Bozeman led the Trojans with 22 points and was 9 of 10 at the free-throw line. Matt Mouzy came off the bench to score 18 points, Alex Garcia-Mendoza scored 10 points and Mike Smith added nine points and 11 rebounds.
Tribune staff contributed to this report.