There had been the nagging question facing the Cal Poly women’s basketball team.
Would this season be the one where the Mustangs finally make it to the NCAA Tournament?
After five years of knocking on the door, Cal Poly won the Big West Tournament title last March and made the university’s first ever appearance in the NCAA Division I postseason championship tournament.
Now, another question looms large heading into this year’s conference tourney: Will the Mustangs still have junior guard Ariana Elegado after it’s all over?
“They ask me every interview on Mondays,” said Elegado, who helps lead Cal Poly into the semifinals of the Big West Tournament on Friday. “Of course, every time I’m in coach’s office, she asks ‘How are you doing junior? Are you coming back?’ ”
Teammates are uncertain, including senior center Molly Schlemer, who bonded strongly with Elegado when the two arrived on campus together in the same recruiting class four years ago.
Having redshirted with an injury that initial season, Elegado has one more year of eligibility to play college basketball. Having also remained on track academically, however, she plans to graduate in June and would have to continue her education at Cal Poly in order to keep playing.
While the notion of a partially funded master’s degree at one of the most respected public universities on the West Coast holds appeal, Elegado’s sports management major and its graduate program at Cal Poly is relatively young, and she is seriously considering schools with a richer tradition in the discipline.
She said she wouldn’t play for another school. She’d simply walk away from basketball after a regular season in which she averaged 17 points per game and joined Schlemer and senior guard Jonae Ervin in becoming the 10th, 11th and 12th players in program history to total at least 1,000 career points club.
Elegado went over the threshold while scoring a career-high 32 points in a victory over rival UC Santa Barbara in Saturday’s regular season finale to secure the No. 2 seed for the conference tournament.
“It’s tough because I know both decisions would make her happy,” Schlemer said. “I know she loves the game of basketball and would like to play, but also I know she’s ready to go back to her family because they’re very important in her life and to go start her new chapter in life because we are, too. Her best friends on the team aren’t really going to be here anymore. I don’t really lean one way or the other, I just want to make sure she’s the happiest, she makes the right decision and doesn’t regret anything.”
A product of La Jolla Country Day School, Elegado expects to have up to 40 family members from San Diego at Honda Center in Anaheim should the Mustangs advance to Saturday’s championship game.
It could be her last with the Mustangs, but also depending on how second-seeded Cal Poly performs against Hawaii in Friday’s 2:30 p.m. semifinal and in a potential finals berth could also affect her decision whether to stay another year.
“If we win, I’ll probably be more content with that,” Elegado said. “If we lose, I’ll probably be more motivated to come back and knock off whoever won.”
If Elegado returns, it would give the Mustangs another strong player of the year candidate after having won it four of the past five seasons and position Cal Poly as a favorite to contend for the conference title once again.
Should Elegado leave, however, Mustangs head coach Faith Mimnaugh would have to replace four starters. Former walk-on guard Nwamaka Ofodu is the other senior.
The program signed four incoming freshman in the early signing period last fall, and despite targeting experienced junior college transfers for the upcoming signing period, 2014-15 could be a rebuilding rather than a reloading season.
“We’re very, very young,” Mimnaugh said. “We’d have really probably 11 players in the freshman-sophomore class, which would be very, very young — talented but young. So, you’d probably think we were more a year or so away from being back in this position.”
The Mustangs won the Big West Tournament as the second seed last season, pulling away from top-seeded Pacific in the second half and advancing to face Penn State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Though Mimnaugh said this year’s team has less size and lacks the effective rebounding of last season’s squad, Cal Poly might be better prepared for tourney time.
The breakthrough of winning last season has the veteran nucleus confident in ways that only come through previous accomplishment.
“This tournament does feel different just because we’re not nervous or shy,” Elegado said. “We’re experienced, and we know what the feeling is.
“We didn’t know how to win, but now that we do, it give us an advantage.
“Valuing each possession, having heart for 40 minutes, playing like it’s your last game and just having that intensity throughout the whole game. I feel like that’s the key things to winning that tournament.”
Said Schlemer: “It’s a really, really mental game. It’s completely different because it’s win or go home. A lot of people stress out about that and panic and don’t have a lot of poise. Poise is key, especially in that championship game.”