Korben Boaz walked into Mott Gym looking a little lost.
About a half-hour early for Wednesday’s Cal Poly women’s basketball game, the bearded Mustangs football lineman ambled over to one of many open seats and plopped down to watch — the waning moments of the home team’s 80-55 victory over the University of San Francisco.
Whether Boaz knew it or not, tipoff had been moved up two hours to 5 p.m. in a Tuesday announcement that could have reached most students had they not already split town for winter break.
Whether the rest were simply unaware or home for the holidays, the 285 who did show to the 3,032-seat arena might have felt more like zero if not for the Cal Poly band and cheerleaders.
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But coming off a five-game losing streak, all on the road, the turnout hardly mattered to the Mustangs players, who wore home white uniforms for the first time since Nov. 19.
“I looked around, and I was like ‘There aren’t that many people there,’ ” senior guard Rachel Clancy said, “but it felt like there were a lot of people there. It was great being back at home.”
Clancy scored a game-high 23 points, junior forward Christine Martin poured in 10 in her final game of the season, and a Cal Poly (3-5) team that’s still evolving after the loss of defending Big West Conference Player of the Year Kristina Santiago snatched 17 steals to help get its offense jumpstarted in the runaway victory over the Dons (2-8).
Minus Santiago, who tore her ACL in the opening minutes of the season opener at Seattle, the Mustangs got off to a surprising 2-0 start but hadn’t won since in a stretch that included road games against high-major programs Illinois, Arizona State and Minnesota.
“It is tough,” said Clancy, who was 8 of 15 from the floor and 5 of 8 from 3-point range against San Francisco. “We’ve had a really touch schedule. It was terrible that we’ve lost. I don’t think they’ve been shameful losses, but it’s still like, ‘Can we please get a win right now?’ ”
Senior point guard Desiray Johnston had an all-purpose game with nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and four points. Backup Jonae Ervin dished out seven assists and grabbed three steals.
As a team, Cal Poly totaled 23 assists and turned the ball over just 13 times. The Mustangs’ 42 first-half points were their highest total of the season, and an 8-minute scoreless streak by the Dons right before the half broke open the game.
Cal Poly turned a six-point advantage into a 42-23 halftime lead during the deciding stretch and didn’t let up in the second half.
Martin added seven rebounds after swishing her first two attempts from 3-point range, but it’s the last game the former Santa Ynez High standout will play, Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh said, before she undergoes a planned season-ending back surgery.
Martin had been one of the players getting minutes at Santiago’s forward spot, splitting time with Kayla Griffin, who had eight points, and Caroline Reeves, who scored six and came up with Cal Poly’s only blocked shot.
It has been a team effort replacing Santiago, the 6-foot-1 post player who averaged more than 19 points and eight rebounds last season.
“Nobody can really fill her role,” Mimnaugh said. “It’s definitely a concerted effort by the whole team. I think they’re really on a mission to play well as a group. We know that we don’t have that go-to player that can create like Santiago can, but we’re an unselfish team, we’re a hard-working team.”
The team is now built with Clancy as the leading scorer — she averaged 15.1 points per game coming in — with an amalgamation of contributors sharing duties elsewhere.
Abby Bloetscher, the only other player averaging more than 10 points, has been the main threat down low.
But whereas the team used to look for Santiago to make things happen in the half-court, now there’s a higher priority on using the fast break to get baskets. The Mustangs turned turnovers into quick points and worked to find spot-up jump shots before the Dons could close out or deny their shooters.
Those are the types of things a team needs to find out about itself when it loses its best player, and despite the end of the academic quarter, Cal Poly is continuing its education in certain areas.
“We’ve learned a lot,” Bloetscher said. “We don’t give up when we lose a player or when we lose a couple on the road against big teams. We come back and keep fighting. Our tenacity and our willingness to go against adversity is a great attribute to our team.”