The no-name games continue for Cal Poly, and that’s proving to be a good thing.
The Mustangs women’s basketball team improved to 6-0 in the Big West Conference with a 57-48 win over visiting UC Riverside (9-8, 3-2 Big West), keeping intact an improbable conference unbeaten streak without star player and reigning Big West Player of the Year Kristina Santiago.
The senior from Righetti High, who is redshirting after she suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season opener, has done so much for Cal Poly (10-7) during her career, it was hard for many others to forge their own reputations.
In her absence, it’s become a guessing game as to who is going to lead the Mustangs to victory, but those certainly are piling up anyway.
“Not that it’s been a blessing,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said about Santiago’s injury, “but there has been a point of discovery I think about the tools in our toolbox. And I don’t know if that would have been fully optimized if we had just relied on ‘T’ all the time.
“Our opponents come off the court and they say, ‘Who where they? I don’t even know who they were,’ which is really beautiful because it epitomizes what a team is about, and when you’ve got a good team, anything can happen.”
On Wednesday it was Caroline Reeves leading the way with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field. Ashlee Burns contributed eight points in seven minutes, and Kayla Griffin scored the Mustangs’ first seven points of the game, finishing with 11 and a career-high 13 rebounds.
Rachel Clancy, the team’s leading scorer at 17.2 points per game, and Abby Bloetscher, coming off her first Big West Player of the Week honor, were held in check by the Highlanders, who used a pressure man-to-man defense and rarely helped off Cal Poly’s shooters.
Clancy was scoreless in the first half and finished with seven points on 3-of-8 shooting. Bloetscher, who averaged 22.5 points and 10 rebounds in two games last week, had seven points and 12 rebounds.
But the Mustangs hardly flinched without big contributions from either. Cal Poly pulled out to a 15-point lead in the first half, and when UC Riverside whittled it down to three in the game’s final 5:32, the Mustangs promptly went on a 7-3 run to end it.
Bloetscher had a jumper from the free-throw line, grabbed an offensive board and assisted on a backdoor cut to Reeves, and Clancy hit her only 3-pointer of the game in transition.
“A lot of times our method is just try to attack them first and get some fouls,” Reeves said, “and then after that we’ll get Rachel and Burns open for 3s, because in the beginning of the season, we were looking to get it to them straight away.”
Getting shooters open never really happened Wednesday because of the Highlanders’ reluctance to leave Clancy, and with 10 blocked shots, UC Riverside’s defenders were a force in the paint without doubling down.
Brittany Waddell had 16 points, three steals and two blocks, and Alyssa Morris added 15 points and four steals.
Cal Poly transfer Nicole Anderson had a tough return to Mott Gym, scoring two points with five rebounds and five turnovers in 15 foul-plagued minutes.
The Mustangs had a huge edge on the boards, out-rebounding the Highlanders 44-31 and skunking UC Riverside in second-chance points while scoring 20 of their own.
It was supposed to be a showdown between the top two teams in the conference, a hotly contested rematch between two teams that had each knocked the other out in the semifinal round of the past two Big West Tournaments.
Instead, looking for its first-ever regular season Big West title, Cal Poly cruised to victory and remains undefeated in a conference where everyone else has at least two losses.
“We have the underdog mentality every game because we don’t have a championship,” Griffin said, “and we’re fighting for that.“With people out, I think it motivated us to play even harder and fight for every game.”