Kristina Santiago wasn’t on the bench. She wasn’t in the stands. She wasn’t sheltered away in some Mott Gym viewing booth only accessible to Cal Poly staff.
She wasn’t in the hospital.
The Mustangs women’s basketball team cruised to a 71-55 victory over winless San Jose State (0-6) hearing the news Sunday that its leader in all things statistical will be back — though there’s no telling when.
“She’s feeling like she got run over by a Mack truck,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “We have no idea about a timeline or anything like that, but it looks like there was no fracture or spinal injury.”
Santiago was admitted to the hospital and released Saturday after taking a stab to the spine from an opposing player’s knee while diving for a loose ball in the first half of a 79-69 victory in the Mustangs’ opener of the Cal Poly Thanksgiving Invitational.
Mimnaugh said she did not think the injury was season-threatening and that the former Righetti High star would play again.
The immediate fear when Santiago was carried off the floor was that the Mustangs (3-2) had just watched the former Big West Conference Player of the Year cut short her senior year with a season-ending injury again.
The 6-foot-1 forward’s first go as a senior was halted in the opening minutes of the 2010-11 season opener in when she tore her ACL.
Cal Poly went on to take its first Big West Conference regular-season title without her, but the team fell short of making its first NCAA Tournament.
After redshirting, Santiago looked better than ever, averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds and leading the Mustangs in blocks through three-and-a-half games.
That’s why a good portion of the 317 in attendance was curious to see if Santiago would make an appearance Sunday. She’s the player that can take Cal Poly to the dance.
Though the Mustangs have consistently proven they can compete at the mid-major level in her absence, there is no replacing the player who goes simply by the letter T.
“She’s not only contributing on offense and defense,” said Cal Poly senior guard Ashlee Burns, who scored a team-high 17 points against the Spartans. “Mentally, she has a lot of positive attitude all of the time. It’s kind of hard to make up that difference.”
The Mustangs did it Sunday with consistent scoring from Burns and former San Jose State transfer Christine Martin, who scored 15 points and leads Cal Poly in field goal percentage (.548).
They also got unexpected contributions from sophomore center Molly Schlemer and redshirt freshman point guard Ariana Elegado, who had more than a dozen family members sitting at center court to cheer for her first collegiate start.
Schlemer, another former Righetti standout, grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds, including a game-high five offensive, and scored eight points.
Schlemer’s buckets on three straight Cal Poly possessions in the first half helped the Mustangs cut a San Jose State lead to 28-27 with 4:09 left before the break.
The Spartans had gone on a 12-2 run over a 4-minute span in the first to take the lead and kept it close until Cal Poly finished on a 27-14 run over the final 15 minutes of the game.
Elegado scored seven points and dished out a game-high eight assists. Brittany Woodard scored nine and grabbed nine rebounds, and Caroline Reeves scored eight with six rebounds for the Mustangs.“Roles are changing at this point,” Martin said. “So, people have to step up across the board, and that was the difference tonight. We had a team effort. People have to step up and take advantage of that opportunity.”
Cal Poly could get some injury relief when it tips off against Pepperdine in a 4:30 p.m. game that will open a doubleheader with the men on Wednesday.
Mimnaugh said junior guard Kayla Griffin could return from a knee injury against the Waves. She was averaging 12 points a game and was leading the team in steals and assists before being hurt in practice before the third game of the season.
In addition to Santiago, the Mustangs will still be without all-conference center Abby Bloetscher, who continues to recover from offseason knee surgery, and sophomore forward Nikol Allison, who has been battling a bad back since she got to Cal Poly.
“We’re best when we have T,” Mimnaugh said. “We’re best when we have Abby. We’re best when we have Nikol Allison. We’re best when we have all the players who are injured right now.”
But “Everyone kind of filled into whatever roles they filled in,” she added. “They all just did their little bit, and their little bit was enough for us to win.”