On pace for its worst game of the season through 20 minutes Thursday, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team turned things around with a barrage of 3-pointers and now finds itself alone at the top.
When the Mustangs needed something to keep them from falling two losses behind UC Davis for the Big West Conference lead with just seven games to go, they got their best half of basketball all season, outscoring the Aggies by 27 in the second half for a 69-48 win at Mott Gym that put them half a game up in the conference standings.
“That half was just beautiful basketball,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said, “and I was glad it was our team doing it to somebody else instead of somebody doing it to us. But it was pretty — and championship caliber, I thought.”
The program’s first regular season Big West championship seems a lot more plausible with the victory than it would have with a loss, and things were not looking positive for Cal Poly early on.
The Mustangs (14-7, 7-2 Big West) trailed 28-22 after the first half, tying their lowest first-half scoring output of the season.
Perhaps it took them that long to figure out the 2-1-2 zone trap of UC Davis (14-7, 6-2 Big West) because it seemed Cal Poly got almost every shot it wanted after the break.
Brittany Lange scored a game-high 18 points (also a career high) on 6 of 9 from 3-point range, and Rachel Clancy added 14 points, including 4 of 7 from long range.
Cal Poly made 10-of-14 3-pointers in the second half and was 12 of 21 for the game.
Mustangs leading scorer and rebounder Kristina Santiago had 15 points and tied a career high with 15 rebounds for her sixth double-double of the season.
Santiago buoyed the team throughout the slow-scoring first half. She was the only Cal Poly player with more than one field goal and went into the second half with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“Sometimes people kind of expect me to just go in, and, like coach says a lot, sometimes just stare when I get the ball,” said Santiago, who leads the Big West with 19.5 points per game. “So, it’s kind of frustrating when that happens, but in the second half, everyone was just like, ‘Ball, let’s do this. I’m open.’ We were finding each other really well.”
They were finding each other so well, in fact, that of Cal Poly’s 27 field goals, the Mustangs were credited with assists on all but two.
Clancy had three points at the break, and Lange had been shut out to that point, but within the first five minutes of the second half, Lange had three spot-up 3-pointers and Cal Poly tied it at 35-35.
The Mustangs took the lead for good with 14:22 left on a 3-pointer by Ashlee Stewart, who scored six points and dished out a game-high eight assists.
“You have to give them all the credit,” said Aggies senior guard Haylee Donaghe, a former Atascadero High standout. “They were just knocking down 3s like it was nothing. And I felt like a lot of those weren’t wide open. They just knocked down shots, and we couldn’t make a shot to save our lives.
“We had a spectacular first half defensively, and then I think we came out in the second half a little bit tired mentally. We weren’t making our shifts as fast as we were in the first half, and we weren’t completing our assignments.”
UC Davis had won seven straight and featured four players who were averaging double digits in Big West play. On Thursday, Vicky Deely led the Aggies with 10 points. Donaghe had seven points on 2-for-9 shooting from the field and two free throws.
UC Davis shot just 20 percent from the floor in the second half. The Mustangs, however, connected on 60.7 percent of their second-half shots, including 71.4 percent on 3-pointers.
Early on against the Aggies’ zone, though, there was a shortage of open shots from the outside.
“They’re a very long and athletic team, and they extend out so far,” Clancy said, “that you find that you’re catching the ball 5 feet off of the 3-point line, and it’s hard to attack because you know you’re going to get trapped right away.”