ANAHEIM — The spotlight had faded. The Cal Poly women’s basketball team’s window to win a Big West Conference Tournament was supposedly slammed shut.
Kristina Santiago was gone, and the All-Americans on the way to San Luis Obispo could be counted with no hands.
Yet, there was Faith Mimnaugh, the Cal Poly head coach in her 16th season, climbing the Honda Center’s extension ladder to finally hang a severed net around her neck for the first time in Mustangs history Saturday.
Cal Poly (21-10) is going to the NCAA Tournament after a 63-49 victory over Pacific (25-7) in a Big West Tournament final that made the Mustangs 3-0 against the Tigers this season.
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And Mimnaugh did it with a team few expected to succeed after the departure of Santiago, the program’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” Mimnaugh said. “Seems like as old as (the players) are I’ve been waiting for this opportunity. I’m a little bit overwhelmed by it. Sometimes you think it’s not going to happen, that your hard work isn’t going to pay off, but it always does.”
It didn’t in 2009, when a team Mimnaugh called the best she’d ever coached lost a second-half lead to UC Santa Barbara in the title game at the Anaheim Convention Center. Cal Poly lost the championship again at Honda Center in 2011 when a miracle run led by Rachel Clancy was halted by UC Davis.
Then, last season, in Santiago’s final Big West Tournament appearance, the regular-season conference-champion Mustangs went down in the semifinals, an effort Mimnaugh frankly called a choke this year considering how the bracket played out.
It seemed like each time Cal Poly was led by Big West players of the year in Santiago and Clancy, the offense stalled when the Mustangs’ tournament opponents forced someone else to beat them.
Santiago “is a great, great player,” Mimnaugh said, “the best player that ever played at Cal Poly, but we have some other good players, and even Kristina Santiago benefitted by playing with these other great players, too. And I’m glad and really proud that they are finally getting the recognition that they deserve.”
Molly Schlemer, Santiago’s less-heralded former teammate at Righetti High, was the tournament MVP in the same week she was named Big West Player of the Year.
But Pacific’s defense swarmed the 6-foot-5 junior center nearly every time she touched the ball in the post. Schlemer grabbed 16 rebounds but scored just seven points on 2-of-8 shooting from the field.
The difference this season was that other players stepped up.
Sophomore point guard Ariana Elegado sealed a spot on the all-tournament team with 22 points, including three 3-pointers and a 9-for-10 effort at the free-throw line.
Caroline Reeves had 10 points and six rebounds, and Nikol Allison came off the bench to score 10.
“We’ve been working so hard,” said Schlemer, who was a freshman reserve on the 2011 team that lost in the final to UC Davis. “(Mimnaugh’s) been working so hard for this. I feel like now that we’ve finally won the championship, hopefully, we’re paving the road for teams in the program to come.”
Even the small contributions made a big difference. One-time Pacific player Taryn Garza scored just two points, but her seven minutes off the bench were crucial in replacing senior forward Kayla Griffin, who suffered a devastating knee injury less than four minutes into the second half.
The game was still very much in doubt when Griffin went down with a potentially torn knee ligament, possibly two.
Cal Poly’s lead was down to four points with 16:01 left, but Reeves hit two free throws to push the advantage back to six points on the next trip down the floor, and the Tigers never got any closer.
Allison immediately converted two layups after subbing in for Griffin, her best friend and roommate since freshman year.
Pacific cut the deficit to six on a 3 by Kendall Rodriguez with 3:54 left, but Schlemer converted a left-handed scoop shot in the lane, and Cal Poly went 10 for 10 from the free-throw line down to stretch to clinch the game.
Mimnaugh didn’t say the victory meant more to her than it did the players, but clearly the championship was significant to the coach, even though the action on the court seemed like the furthest thing from her mind while she tended to the fallen Griffin in those tense moments.
“Coach Faith is basically our mother on the court and off the court,” Elegado said. “Seeing coach Faith rush to Kayla is nothing new. Someone falls in practice, and she’s always the first one to run to that person that fell.”
Said Schlemer: “She cares about us as human beings, not just as her players. So, she wants to make sure we’re always comfortable, always OK. She’d give Kayla her leg if possible.”