The loss of Kristina Santiago finally caught up to the Cal Poly women’s basketball team Friday night.
After starting the season 2-0, the Mustangs lost for the first time at the hands of Loyola Marymount 77-58 in the team’s home opener at Mott Gym.
Since Santiago went down, it was almost certain some effects would surface. Santiago, the reigning Big West Player of the Year, averaged a conference-high 19.6 points per game last season and is the fourth-leading scorer in program history.
But up to this point, the Mustangs had survived without her.
They came out the gates to defeat Seattle 74-57 in their season opener and in Cal Poly’s second game, the Mustangs defeated Fresno State 72-67, a team that won the Western Athletic Conference a year ago. Both wins came with equal scoring contributions from most players.
“We were all up for both games and we knew it was kind of the start of a new season almost,” guard Rachel Clancy said. “With or without (Santiago), it’s not like all is lost.”
The majority of the burden for filling in for Santiago, however, fell on Clancy. She posted a team-high 18 points against Seattle and 12 against Fresno State. But Loyola Marymount halted whatever momentum Clancy had from those two games.
Against the Lions she had 10 points, with eight coming in the first half.
Her numbers reflected just a piece of the total offensive struggle the Mustangs had against the Lions. Overall, they shot 36 percent from the field and 77 percent from the free-throw stripe. They turned the ball over 18 times and scored just seven points in the final seven minutes.
Without a presence in the paint, the Mustangs were forced to throw up perimeter shots. Clancy and guard Ashlee Burns were the only players who found remote success on that end. As a team, the Mustangs shot 6-of-19 from behind the 3-point arc (32 percent).
“I thought they kicked our butts,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “We held on for a while, but then our defense broke down. It was easily one of our poorest performances from a defensive standpoint that I have seen this year.”
Guard Alex Cowling proved to be a constant problem for the Mustangs defensively. Cowling, a junior, averaged 18.5 points per game coming into Friday’s game and the first team all-West Coast Conference selection a year ago posted 31 points, 11 rebounds and four steals on the Mustangs.
“Alex Cowling was better than our whole team,” Mimnaugh said.
Cowling may not have had those numbers if the Mustangs had another player such as Santiago on the floor Friday night. Overall, Clancy said the Mustangs can still be as good as they can be, but she would help.
“If (Santiago) had been playing, there would have been another big scorer out there and another big body on the boards,” Clancy said. “We are just trying to play with the players we have.”
For the Mustangs, Burns had a team-high 14 points. Two other Mustangs scored in double figures — Clancy and guard Jonae Ervin, who scored 10 points.
“They are great scoring threats for sure,” Mimnaugh said. “But we need some other people contributing.
“People that used to be complementary to Kristina now have to score, and they haven’t worked it out yet.”
Clancy said the Mustangs have players that can fill Santiago’s shoes.
“We have a fantastic group of players that are still healthy and ready to go,” Clancy said. “So I am thinking more about what they can contribute, not what we lost.”
“We are extremely optimistic, we don’t look at outside expectations. We’re still hopeful we can continue form here and definitely the (Big West) championship is within our sights.”