ANAHEIM — Kayla Griffin reached up with scissors in hand, and made the snip she’s been waiting for all this time.
Just when the Cal Poly senior forward wasn’t quite sure how she was going to climb the ladder, the bulky black knee brace holding her right leg hostage disappeared in a sea of teammates below, and the pain of two possibly torn knee ligaments was washed away by a mission finally accomplished.
She was fittingly the first player to cut a strand of the Honda Center net on Saturday.
“It’s really sad because it’s my senior year,” Griffin said, “but if I’m going to tear it in one game, better tear it in that one and get the win. The winning makes it feel much better.”
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The Mustangs are going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history after a 63-49 Big West Tournament championship victory over Pacific.
Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said she expects nothing less than to be matched up against one of the tournament favorites in the first round. No matter where the team is slotted in Monday’s 4 p.m. announcement of the NCAA women’s tournament field, the Mustangs (21-10) won’t have Griffin available to play.
Her career ended with a couple of pops as she landed with a twist while trying to save a lost ball in front of the Mustangs’ bench less than four minutes into the second half against the Tigers (25-7).
Having torn her left ACL while at Hayward Moreau Catholic High, Griffin knew what the sound meant, but if the familiar torque wasn’t enough, the shocked, mouths-agape visages she saw along the Cal Poly sideline were all the diagnosis she needed.
“In my head, I was just like, ‘I just want my team to win,’ ” Griffin said. “If I could run right now, I’d be out there. I don’t care what kind of pain I’m in.”
The score was close. Cal Poly held a 33-29 lead with 16 minutes left in the game, and it was in those next few moments that the Mustangs defined their season.
Having to replace Griffin — a player constructed from the type of industrial glue that holds championship teams together — was huge cause for concern.
Griffin is the only player on the team to start all 31 games and averages a team-high 32.3 minutes. She ranks second on Cal Poly in rebounds (7.0) and assists (3.5) per game and averages a team-best 1.6 steals.
“We wouldn’t be in this position without Kayla,” Mimnaugh said. “She makes us go. She’s so smart. She does everything. She defends like a monster, and she contributed bigtime to this win today. I hated that she couldn’t be on the court at the very end of the game, but her spirit was there.”
The situation was startlingly similar to a mid-January game between the same teams where Mustangs forward Brittany Woodard tore her ACL while slipping underneath her own basket at Mott Gym.
Woodard was averaging 10.6 points and 5.6 rebounds before she was lost for the season. She was coming off a career-high 21-point game against UC Davis, and Mimnaugh said Saturday that Woodard was rounding into a conference player-of-the-year candidate.
In the game Woodard was hurt, Cal Poly blew a 20-point lead to the Tigers but went on to win in triple overtime.
On Saturday, sophomore guard Ariana Elegado said the Mustangs used Griffin’s injury as motivation, and tournament MVP Molly Schlemer agreed.
“I just kept saying to the team, we have to play for Kayla like we played for Britney,” Schlemer said. “I think we took that to heart, and we wanted to play for Kayla and play our hardest, so she wouldn’t be as disappointed.”
After leaving the court to have her knee examined, Griffin returned to the end of the bench to watch the conclusion of the game propped up next to the Gatorade cooler.
She teared up during an embrace with Mimnaugh near the exact spot where she was lying prone less than an hour earlier, and just like Griffin had envisioned before the game, she was able to grab a souvenir.
“I wanted to be able to cut down the net,” Griffin said. “Everyone’s like, ‘We’re going to push you up there.’ They let me go first, so I’m so happy.”