In last season’s Big West Conference Tournament, Kristina Santiago hit a last-second layup that sent the Cal Poly women’s basketball team to its first championship game in program history.
The winning fast-break basket in the semifinal against UC Riverside was all that mattered then.
But that shot, as well as the euphoria surrounding the program following its first winning season under head coach Faith Mimnaugh, concealed Santiago’s overall struggles at the Anaheim Convention Center.
“I just don’t think I’ve played to my potential,” said Santiago, who had just seven points before the winning shot over the Highlanders and scored seven total in the finals loss to UC Santa Barbara the next day. “Last year, it was really mental for me. I was having off games. Normal shots I would knock down any day, you don’t hit. That’s really frustrating in a championship game.”
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As the Mustangs ready for this week’s Big West Tournament, there’s a certain confidence that comes along with being one of the top two teams earning automatic byes into the semifinals. It’s the first time a Cal Poly women’s team has pulled that off, and along with being named the Mustangs’ first Big West Player of the Year on Monday, Santiago is playing at an extremely high level, averaging 18.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game.
But there are also issues like Santiago’s slump in the Convention Center and Cal Poly’s subpar road record there to temper some of the optimism.
The Mustangs won’t jump into the fray until Friday, when they will play the highest remaining seed while regular season conference champion UC Davis takes on the lowest in the other semifinal.
Cal Poly jumped into that second-place spot on the final day of the regular season thanks to a tiebreaker. A loss to Long Beach State by UC Riverside opened the door for the Mustangs to tie the Highlanders in the standings with a road victory over UC Irvine.
Had Cal Poly lost to the Anteaters, it would have forced the Mustangs to have to win three games in order to get to what would be their first NCAA Tournament instead of two, but that final road victory was also big for another reason.
The Mustangs have been terribly inconsistent away from home, especially late in the season, despite going 8-0 at home in the Big West.
The win over UC Irvine prevented Cal Poly from losing its fifth straight road game. The Mustangs are 6-8 overall on the road, including the previous two games, and going into the tournament having lost three straight was a big concern.
“I think that would have been tough to rebound from as far as confidence goes,” Mimnaugh said. “To end this season on a downer would have been a tough thing to come back from.”
Santiago hasn’t been at fault for the recent struggles. She has scored 20 points or more in five of the past six games. More so, the team’s outside shooting has been better with the more comfortable backdrop of Mott Gym.
As a team, the Mustangs have tried to evaluate everything they do on the road from the amount of time the team shoots during pregame warmups to what it eats in the pregame meal to brainstorm ways to turn things around.
“I don’t want to blame it on that but I think it kind of messes up people’s normal routines,” Santiago said. “I have superstitions. I know Rachel Clancy has superstitions. It’s just one of those things. It’s definitely a different feel on the road.”