The Cal Poly women’s basketball team’s season ended in disappointment with a semifinal loss in the Big West Conference Tournament on Friday.
But there was still some reason for optimism buried in that three-point loss to eventual tournament champion UC Riverside.
Even though the team said goodbye to three and possibly four senior starters after the potential game-tying 3-pointer hit iron, the Mustangs’ were only in the game after falling behind by double digits because of a group consisting largely of returning players.
The Highlanders held a 44-34 lead with 10:59 left in the game, and Cal Poly (18-11) used a 10-0 run to tie the score over the next 4:15. Senior Brittany Lange, who missed that final buzzer-beating 3, scored six of the points during the run, but she was the only senior on the floor during much of the span.
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Junior point guard Desiree Johnston scored on a layup. Freshman forward Kayla Griffin grabbed a rebound and scored a layup of her own. Sophomore guard Ariel Gregersen had a rebound.
Perhaps more important was what they did not do: Give the ball away.
During a near 4-minute span while making the comeback, only returning Big West Player of the Year Kristina Santiago, a junior, was charged with a turnover.
When the score got close, Cal Poly coach Faith Mimnaugh went back to her original starting lineup, which included four potential seniors, and the Highlanders had the lead back up to eight within 3 minutes.
“I went with what got us here and thought that might be the answer, and it didn’t work out,” Mimnaugh said after the game. “So, if it was my decision at that point that cost us the game, then I’ll take that.
“There was a substitution there that I wish would have turned in our favor. But to believe in kids, you’ve got to keep believing in them, even when they’re struggling, and that’s what I did today.”
Mimnaugh had plenty of reason to believe in seniors Ashlee Stewart and Becky Tratter. Stewart, a point guard, set the all-time Cal Poly record with her 119th appearance that day and ranks seventh in Division I this season with a 2.43 assist-to-turnover ratio. Tratter stands second on the Mustangs’ appearance list at 118.
Now they, along with Lange, who scored more than eight points per game and shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range this year, need to be replaced.
The team’s other top 3-point threat, Rachel Clancy, could also leave after this year with another season of eligibility left on the table. Clancy, a redshirt junior on pace to graduate this spring, declined to comment on her decision Friday.
Together, the seniors represent 32.5 points per game, more than 14 rebounds per game, more than 10 assists per game, more than two-thirds of Cal Poly’s made 3-pointers and more than 90 steals.
It may appear that the team is headed for a step back in Santiago’s senior season, but plenty returns, including several players who were hurt.
Point guard Tamara Wells was a part-time starter before redshirting what would have been her senior season with an injury. Mimnaugh has also been high on Nikol Allison, a 6-2 freshman who missed the entire season with an injury. Freshman point guard Jonae Ervin was averaging more than 13 minutes a game but sat out the final 19 contests after she got hurt.
Perhaps the biggest returnee of all is 6-3 sophomore Abby Bloetscher. Cal Poly lost three of its final five games after Bloetscher injured her knee down the stretch.
“That was significant,” UC Riverside coach John Margaritis said. “She was a very tough player to play against. Their inside presence was diminished with Bloetscher not being there.”