With Cal State Fullerton paying so much attention to Cal Poly’s “Big Three,” the Titans defenders were literally turning their backs to Nwamaka Ofodu.
The former walk-on would catch the ball on the baseline to find uninterested defenders who’d rather double down on 6-foot-5 senior center Molly Schlemer and hug high-scoring guards Ariana Elegado and Jonae Ervin on the perimeter than close out on her.
So Ofodu shot. And she scored.
Cal Poly (10-8, 4-1 Big West Conference) needed every one of her career-high 17 points in Thursday’s 69-65 victory at Mott Athletic Center, and the Mustangs needed the blue-collar contributions of forward Taryn Garza, too.
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Both Ofodu and Garza — each known more for their defensive contributions — played the role of offensive savior, and Ervin turned out a well-rounded effort and helped cap the win with a clutch performance at the free-throw line as Cal Poly overcame a blown double-digit first-half lead.
“We go into every game, and we expect that they’re probably going to be doubling Molly or Jonae or Arianna,” Ofodu said. “So, just us being comfortable with taking a shot when it’s open, that’s what I did today.
“I kind of feel disrespected, but I mean it’s expected at the same time. It’s just about me being confident in my ability to put the ball in the hoop.”
Averaging just three points per game coming in, Ofodu was 8 for 16 from the field, mostly shooting 15-footers from the baseline.
Though she rarely had to shoot much before with Schlemer averaging 18.6, Elegado pouring in 17.5 and Ervin chipping in 12.6 points per game, Ofodu has worked hard to get comfortable sinking those baseline looks.
She hit jumpers from nearly the same spot on back-to-back possessions to give Cal Poly a 48-44 lead with 12:44 left, and, as expected, also came up with two key blocks on defense.
Ofodu has always been a pesky defender. Now, she’s playing effectively enough to remain on the court full-time.
“People probably already know about Nwamaka walking onto our team and working her tail off to get a scholarship,” Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “Her first couple years she’d have three fouls in two minutes and be sitting.
“Garza’s the same way. She’s a beast on the boards. She’s a beast on the post up, and the only think that’s limited her playing time is her foul trouble.”
Garza played in and out of foul trouble Thursday, finishing with four personals, but when the game got tight in the end, she was on the floor contributing.
Eight of her 12 points came in the final 11 minutes, and each one of her eight rebounds, six offensive, seemed to come at crucial spots in the game.
Schlemer, who finished with 12 points and nine rebounds, received constant double-teaming from an undersized Cal State Fullerton frontcourt. That allowed Garza the space to operate in a similar way to Ofodu. She took advantage of defenders who were content to ignore her.
“We just had to step up,” Garza said. “They noticed our Big Three, and they always do amazing, and we all work well together, but we had to step up tonight and take on the challenge.”
It looked like it would be a runaway early on. Cal Poly built a 19-3 lead and pushed the differential back out to 16 with 7:22 left in the first half.
But the Titans (6-11, 2-2 Big West) came alive and finished the half on a 20-6 run to cut the Mustangs lead to just two at the break.
Cal State Fullerton stayed in the game with improved 3-point shooting. The Titans opened the game just 1 for 11 from beyond the arc, but shot 10 for 22 the rest of the way.
Cal State Fullerton was led by Alex Thomas’s game-high 19 points. Chante Miles added 16 points, and Hailey King scored 13.
The Titans took their lone lead of the game at 61-60 with 4:19 left, but Schlemer and Garza nailed back-to-back jumpers to give Cal Poly a three-point lead, and Ervin took care of the rest at the free-throw line.
The senior point guard scored five of her 17 points at the free-throw line in the final minute to help clinch the game.
Ervin finished 7 of 8 from the line overall and also grabbed seven rebounds. She handed out eight assists without a single turnover.
Elegado had just two points on 1-of-7 shooting but also grabbed seven rebounds and had four assists and one turnover.
Cal State Fullerton tried to take out the Big Three at any cost, and the Titans found that even though there isn’t a nickname for the rest of the squad, the other Mustangs are can’t be left alone.
“We’re all one team,” Ofodu said. “We win and lose together. So, we only use the term ‘Big Three’ because we know that’s what other people are calling them, and that’s how we refer to players that are doing well on other teams. But at the end of the day, we’re all one team.”