Ashlee Burns converted a game-winning 3-point play with 2.3 seconds left, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team handed UC Santa Barbara a rare Big West Conference-opening loss and the Mustangs showed they’re still the team to beat despite a rough nonconference season.
Cal Poly point guard Jonae Ervin’s tight defense on the final play stifled Gauchos point guard Emilie Johnson — who had hit a 3-pointer to tie the score just moments earlier — to help preserve the 61-58 victory and just the second conference opening loss for UC Santa Barbara in the past 17 seasons.
Picked in the preseason to repeat as regular-season Big West champions, Cal Poly got off to a 3-9 start this season, losing a handful of close games that could have gone either way.
Beating a perennial title contender like the Gauchos to snap a seven-game losing streak after a month on the road made a statement.
“We’ve been in every game,” Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “We get a call here or there or the ball bounces our away and all those are wins — 3-9 could easily have been 7-4.
“That’s a sign of a good team. We’ve been on the road forever. We’re adjusting, but I feel like we are still a very good basketball team. But the team is really fighting and trying to get better every single day.”
The only Cal Poly player in double figures, senior forward Kristina Santiago had game highs with 18 points and three steals. The former Righetti High standout also grabbed seven rebounds.
Ervin had nine points, and Kayla Griffin returned from the flu to put up six points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
Melissa Zornig led UC Santa Barbara (5-7) with 16 points, Destini Mason added 11 and Johnson scored nine.
As has been almost customary for Cal Poly over the years, the Mustangs suffered some injuries early in the season, losing Griffin for a while and seeing starting forward Brittany Woodard sidelined with a foot injury.
Nikol Allison remains out with a back injury, and even Santiago has missed time with an ankle sprain.
Mimnaugh is hoping to receive some positive injury news. All-conference center Abby Bloetscher, rehabbing a torn ACL, could return in the next couple weeks.
Woodard is also on the mend and could be back for the stretch run.
Mimnaugh will have a happy new year if the Mustangs can keep winning the close ones.
“We’ve had a lot of heartbreak,” Mimnaugh said. “Five of our losses have been a single possession. It felt good to get a conference win, and to get it over our arch rivals was satisfying.”