Through the first 20 minutes of its home opener Monday, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team did not look like a winless program desperate for its first victory.
Immediately following the 72-64 victory over New Mexico State, however, junior guard Ariana Elegado rounded into the Mott Athletics Center hallway leading to the Mustangs’ locker room letting out a release that told it all.
“We finally got that win,” Elegado said.
Sometime between the end of the first half, when Cal Poly trailed by two, and the final buzzer, the Mustangs (1-3) found their inspiration.
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After an inconsistent start, reigning Big West Conference Player of the Year Molly Schlemer spurred the decisive run to highlight what was perhaps the finest game as a collegian for the senior center and Righetti High product.
Elegado had 10 points and seven assists to counter an 0-for-6 performance from 3-point range, senior point guard Jonae Ervin had 11 points and six assists, and defensive stopper Nwamaka Ofodu played a key role all around in the Mustangs’ home opener.
Schlemer shot 13 of 21 from the field while tying career highs with 28 points and 17 rebounds. She had nine points and eight rebounds through the first half but had four turnovers in the post to go along with them as the Aggies (1-2) closed on a 6-2 run to lead 33-31 at the break.
“When you’re not playing to your ability, and I know the team felt like that, too, at halftime,” Schlemer said, “we talked to ourselves, saying we could do way better than this. We should be beating this team by way more.”
Schlemer proved it during a 7-plus-minute stretch that saw Cal Poly retake the lead and push it to 12 points by midway through the second half. Schlemer was 5 of 6 from the field during the run and did not commit a turnover in the entire second half.
“Surprisingly, they weren’t doubling her that half,” Elegado said. “I felt we had the momentum. After she scored, we had the whole crowd. We told ourselves one possession at a time. After we scored, we had to get down and get a stop.”
Ofodu was one player who helped spearhead the defensive effort. She also hit the second in a trio of layups by herself, Schlemer and Ervin on consecutive possessions after New Mexico State had cut the lead to five with 3:40 left in the game.
Aggies guard Elena Holguin helped keep her team in the game, going 6 of 7 from 3-point range and finishing with a team-high 19 points. Sasha Weber added 12 points, and Vanessa Garner added 10, but minus Holguin’s contribution, New Mexico State was just 5 for 20 on 3s.
Zero for six from the field by the time the Aggies got back to within five, Ofodu drove the lane to beat the shot clock with an acrobatic layup that gave the Mustangs some breathing room in the final minutes.
“She actually took four charges,” Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said, “like she does every day in practice. She’s awesome with that. I thought she was really key for us, not just with that shot, but I felt she kept the ball alive a lot against their zone, just getting offensive tips, whether she came up with it or just kept it alive for someone else.”
Elegado continued her cold outside shooting spell to start the season. She is shooting just 22.6 percent from 3-point range so far after ranking as one of the top 3-point threats in the Big West last year, when she shot 38.4 percent on 3s and her 73 3-point field goals were 48 more than anyone else on the team.
Cal Poly did get 3-pointers from elsewhere, finishing 6 of 14 outside of Elegado. Kristen Ale and Beth Balbierz had two each, Ervin had one and so did true freshman Sarah Lipton.
Hannah Gilbert, a true freshman from Morro Bay High, made her home debut and sank her only field-goal attempt, a short-range jumper from the baseline.
Sophomore Maddison Allen had four points and three assists to go with 10 rebounds, including a game-high five on the offensive glass.
“We had multiple scorers,” Mimnaugh said. “It wasn’t just our big three. We had multiple people contributing different ways.”
Cal Poly next hosts Nevada (2-1) Thursday night at 7 p.m. The Wolfpack is making a tour of the Big West. One of its wins came over Long Beach State, but it lost to UC Irvine.
Schlemer threw down the gauntlet on Twitter on Monday, challenging all of her friends to appear at the arena. After attendance stood at 426, she’ll be stepping it up come Thursday.
“I like to deliver when people are watching me,” Schlemer said.