ANAHEIM — When Rachel Clancy wriggled on the floor to secure a steal and kicked the ball to Kristina Santiago, it was like last year’s Big West Conference Tournament semifinal all over again.
Except, this time, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team didn’t get the buzzer-beater it needed to beat UC Riverside.
Mustangs senior guard Brittany Lange missed a 3-pointer near the top of the key that would have sent the game into overtime, and a Cal Poly comeback effort fell short as the third-seeded Highlanders escaped to the tournament final with a 54-51 win at the Anaheim Convention Center on Friday.
Last season, Santiago hit the clinching layup to close out UC Riverside (16-15) in the same game, and she felt a repeat coming on as she passed the ball up to Desiray Johnston with less than five seconds left before Johnston hurled it over to Lange for the final shot.
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“Right when I got the ball, kicked it to Desiree, I was running down,” Sanitago said. “I was like, ‘This is it. We got this.’ ”
The second-seeded Mustangs (18-11) had been expecting to get back to the Big West final and even to make the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament after falling to UC Santa Barbara in the final last season.
But Lange’s 3-pointer — which came a foot or two deeper than her usual attempt but without a defender in the vicinity — rimmed off to the right and caromed harmlessly off the glass.
“Even when the shot was going up, I thought it was going to hit the bottom of the net and send us into overtime,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said.
“It’s difficult when you set out to win a championship to have come up short.”
Said Santiago: “It was heartbreaking. Every player on our team worked so hard for this all year long. We worked for it every day, and this is by far the closest team we’ve had at Cal Poly since I’ve been here. To look around the locker room and see everyone so heartbroken — everyone wanted it so bad — is sad.”
Santiago, who was coming off a hyperextended elbow that she injured playing pick-up basketball toward the end of the regular season, tied a season low with 13 points but kept her season-long streak of double-digit scoring games alive and grabbed seven rebounds.
Lange had nine points, all on 3-pointers, and helped spearhead the comeback effort after the Mustangs fell behind by 10 midway through the second half. She, Clancy and Santiago each had three steals apiece.
Clancy finished with a game-high 14 points, hitting 6 of 12 from the field, and grabbed 12 rebounds for her second double-double of the season.
Cal Poly still trailed 54-46 with 1:19 left until Clancy nailed a 3-pointer and Santiago scored on a layup on back-to-back possessions to set up the final showdown with 33 seconds left.
It was a rare flurry for the Mustangs against an aggressive man-to-man defense by the Highlanders that clogged up the passing lanes and denied Cal Poly players on the wing.
“They were just overplaying a lot and made us panic, so we were overdribbling a little bit,” Clancy said, “which is a bit tough because we need to enter the ball by pass to start our offense. So, if we can’t get that first pass, then we’re out of synch with the shot clock.”
The tight defense was a calculated risk by UC Riverside coach John Margaritis. By forcing the Mustangs’ outside shooters out of their comfort zone, he might have left more room for Santiago to operate in the middle.
And even though the teams finished locked in a second-place tie with identical 11-5 conference records, Cal Poly played tight, and the Highlanders played like they had nothing to lose.
UC Riverside’s defense forced the tempo.
“In little league, some kids go up there and hope that the pitcher just throws four balls because they’re not going to swing,” Margaritis said. “I felt we had to swing. Maybe we’ll miss every pitch, but we had to swing.”
Coming off two byes, the Mustangs seemed like the fresher team early on.
Cal Poly used a 13-2 run over four minutes in the first half to push an early advantage to 19-7. The Mustangs lost a little ground but still held a 24-13 lead with 6:15 left in the first half.
But Cal Poly scored just four more points and squander the entire lead before halftime, when the teams went into the locker room tied at 28.
Because of a new rule instituted in January, UC Riverside would receive the conference’s automatic bid to the WNIT should the Highlanders lose to UC Davis in the final today.
In previous years, the Mustangs could have rooted for an Aggies win and would have taken the conference tie-in to the WNIT because of regular-season tiebreakers with UC Riverside. The new rule gives the tiebreaker to the Highlanders since they split the regular-season series, and Cal Poly has to hope for a long-shot at-large postseason berth for its season to continue.
“We’re kind of in shell shock because we realize what opportunity was before us,” Mimnaugh said. “And we all wanted to win a championship.”
UC Davis 63, UC Santa Barbara 53
Former Atascadero High standout Haylee Donaghe scored four of her 12 points in the final two minutes to help the Aggies (21-9) turn back a comeback effort by the Gauchos (15-17) and ensure a Big West Tournament women’s final without UC Santa Barbara for the first time since 1996.
Donaghe, recently named Big West Defensive Player of the year, also came up with a last-minute steal that helped UC Davis move on to the tournament final, where the Aggies will play UC Riverside today at 1 p.m.
Donaghe finished with six steals and was a perfect 4 for 4 from the free-throw line. UC Davis also got 15 points and two blocks from center Paige Mintun.
UC Santa Barbara, which pulled to within two in the final three minutes after trailing by 14 points at the half, got 17 points from Meagan Williams and 10 points and 13 rebounds from Mekia Valentine.