Could the Cal Poly women’s basketball team be the team to beat in the Big West Conference this year?
It depends who you ask, even after the Mustangs’ final nonleague tune-up of the season, a 94-66 blowout of Seattle at Mott Gym on Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m not ready to say that yet,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said.
The win moved them to 7-4, the best nonleague record in the Big West Conference.
Junior forward Kristina Santiago, the conference’s leading scorer, had more of a player’s sort of answer than her guarded coach.
“Um, we think so,” Santiago said with a laugh. “We’re hoping we’re the team to beat.”
The league standings lean more toward Santiago’s response. Besides the Mustangs and UC Davis (7-5), no one in the league has a winning record. Traditional power UC Santa Barbara, last year’s champion, opened 3-8.
The Mustangs, who’ve won four of their past five, trailed 5-4 early Tuesday before going on a 25-3 run over about the next eight minutes. All but one of Cal Poly’s first 21 baskets came on assists.
“Who wouldn’t love that?” Mimnaugh said. “That’s great basketball, to be unselfish and find the best shooter on the court.”
Cal Poly, which was 12th in the country in assists last year during a 21-11, conference-finals run, finished with a season-best 35 field goals on 29 assists. Starting point guard Ashlee Stewart had the high individual number, with seven, and fellow guards Rachel Clancy and Desiray Johnston distributed six apiece.
“It was really good team basketball,” Santiago said. “One thing (Mimnaugh) emphasizes is knowing who the scorers are, and when we get double- or triple-teamed, to look for kickouts. I think we did that really well.”
Santiago finished with a team-high 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, but a season-high five others also scored in double figures: Becky Tratter (14), Johnston (13), Christine Martin (12), Clancy (10) and Brittany Lange (10).
“That was big for us,” Mimnaugh said of the balance. “(Santiago’s) ability to pass out of double or triple teams was key.”
Sixteen of Cal Poly’s assists came in the opening 14 minutes.
“Almost every person on our team always thinks pass first,” Clancy said.
The overmatched and undersized Redhawks (3-13), in their first full season at the Division I level, had only two players 6 feet or taller, compared to Cal Poly’s nine. They trailed 45-30 at halftime. Despite shooting 57.4 percent to Seattle’s 37 percent, the Mustangs had a 37-29 rebounding advantage.
“We’ve definitely improved our rebounding,” Mimnaugh said. “That’s been a point of emphasis for us to compete in the Big West.”
Santiago, a Righetti High graduate, became the 11th player in Cal Poly history to surpass 900 points.
Elle Kerfoot led Seattle with 16 points. All 14 active Cal Poly players saw floor time, with 12 scoring.
Cal Poly will open conference play at home at 7 p.m. Monday against UC Irvine, beginning a stretch of three games in six days.
“This was our last game going into conference, and we definitely wanted it to be a good one to set the tone for the next week, because we’re going to be very busy,” Clancy said.
“We’ve had a really good nonconference season. I would like to think our mentality wouldn’t change much (entering league games), but I’m sure it does with everyone, including me. When we go into the Big West, we automatically think do-or-die.”