Four games into the Big West Conference season, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team is once again one of the favorites for the crown, showcasing an offensive lineup full of players that can put up huge scoring totals.
But with half of those games ending in overtime victories and with the top five teams in the nine-team conference still tied in the loss column, the Mustangs (9-8, 3-1 Big West) are not on solid ground just yet.
They had to erase a 17-point first-half deficit in dramatic fashion to win the conference opener at Hawaii two weeks ago, and after suffering its first Big West defeat against Cal State Northridge last week, Cal Poly blew a late lead at Long Beach State before winning in overtime.
“Part of me feels like it’s helpful for us to have those overtime games,” said junior guard Ariana Elegado, who scored 30 in the victory over the 49ers, “knowing we can get crucial stops at the end and knowing we can pull out a win. The other part of me feels like the games shouldn’t be as close. We shouldn’t be down 17 points in the first half, and we shouldn’t have the other team come back. We should play the full 40 minutes.”
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Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh points to parity in the conference. Cal State Fullerton (6-10, 2-1 Big West), which comes to Mott Athletic Center for a 7 p.m. game today, is one of five one-loss teams in the Big West. Cal Poly, UC Davis, Cal State Northridge and Hawaii are the others.
There have also been two other overtime games in the first two weeks of conference play, but the majority of the other contests have ended in double-digit point differentials.
For Cal Poly, the concern isn’t on offense.
Senior center and reigning Big West Player of the Year Molly Schlemer is having another MVP-caliber season, averaging a team-leading 18.6 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.
At 6-foot-5, Schlemer is a matchup nightmare for smaller conference opponents, but the Mustangs have also shown when rivals concentrate on stopping the Righetti High product, others can step up.
Over the past six games, four different players have led Cal Poly in scoring. Senior point guard Jonae Ervin, the school’s newly crowned career assists leader, had 37 in the victory at Hawaii. Junior guard Kristen Ale had 25 in a loss at Oregon. Schlemer had a career-high 37 in a win over UC Santa Barbara, the lone conference home game for the Mustangs thus far. And Elegado, second on the team at 17.5 points per game, had 30 at Long Beach State and scored another 30 against the Gauchos.
Cal Poly’s leading individual scorer has had a minimum of 22 points in each of the past seven games. It’s a testament to the depth of the roster and the diverse skill set of the Mustangs’ scoring threats that teams are finding it difficult to adjust to which one happens to be in the zone.
“We just take what the defense gives us,” Ervin said, “and we’ll find whoever’s in rhythm, whoever has the hot hand and keep giving them the ball and giving them that confidence and just let them score at will.
“We’ve played with each other for so many years, and we know how to make adjustments. We know how to adjust even if they’re playing to guard our strengths.”
While the way opponents decide to guard Schlemer can dictate some of the game, Ervin is the catalyst for Cal Poly.
The 5-3 senior from Brea is a rare point guard who can create her own shots, and the more she does, the easier it is for her to find open teammates.
The results have been high assist totals, and combined with a dedication to ball security, Ervin consistently ranks among the best in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. She led the nation with a 2.67 mark two years ago and placed fourth in the NCAA last year.
Being among the best, she regularly monitors the assist-to-turnover statistic, but the fact that her 391st career assist eclipsed the record of 390 set by Laura Buehning in 1982 caught Ervin somewhat off guard.
“That assist record has been long standing,” Mimnaugh said, “and for her to get that is well deserved. She was surprised. She didn’t even know that was coming up.”
Said Ervin: “I really didn’t know where I was in the assist count. I just played and had fun. I’ve had fun all my years here. Being the assist record-holder, that shows it’s not just me but all the great players around me that we’ve had success with.”