A slow start and poor shooting performance was too much for the Cal Poly women’s basketball team to overcome during its home-opening loss to Santa Clara on Friday at Mott Athletics Center.
Coming off a difficult setback at 16th-ranked Cal last weekend, the Mustangs fell behind early against an opportunistic Broncos team and never fully recovered en route to a 69-63 defeat in the ninth annual ShareSLO Holiday Tournament.
Senior guard Beth Balbierz played through a difficult shooting night from 3-point range to score a team-high 16 points for Cal Poly (2-3), which has another game scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday against Montana State.
“We definitely felt like we gave one away today,” 19th-year head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “And hopefully they’re fired up and ready to capture a home win here tomorrow.”
Santa Clara (3-2) played an aggressive style defensively following a dominant effort earlier in the week against one of the top teams in the country. The Broncos went on the road to upset No. 13 Stanford 61-58 at Maples Pavilion, handing the Cardinal their first home nonconference loss against an unranked team since 2007.
The 26 turnovers Santa Clara forced were the most against a Stanford team since 2003, and the Broncos carried that momentum into Friday’s matchup. They forced Cal Poly into 17 turnovers, scoring 20 points off those extra opportunities, and held a 41-34 rebounding advantage.
The Mustangs managed to stay within striking distance throughout an inconsistent first half. Late in the second quarter, senior point guard Lisa Maria Sanchez made a 3-pointer from the left wing that cut Cal Poly’s deficit to 35-27, and the score stayed that way until the break.
“We knew that they were going to try to attack us inside,” Balbierz said. “So ideally we were gonna attempt to keep them off the (offensive) boards, which we struggled with in the first half but I thought we adjusted well in the second half.”
The Mustangs kept chipping away at the lead to start the second half and used a 9-0 run to make it a one-point game, 37-36, with 4:33 left in the third quarter. Sophomore Dynn Leaupepe capped the surge with a baseline jump shot from the left side, forcing the Broncos to take a timeout.
Santa Clara responded with a 13-4 run of its own and led 50-40 to start the final period. A Balbierz jump shot eventually trimmed the deficit to 64-58 with 1:57 left in the game, but the Mustangs would get no closer the rest of the way.
Mimnaugh said working against Santa Clara’s 2-2-1 full-court press was a key focus in practice during the week, and she felt the Mustangs handled the pressure well at times Friday.
“I would’ve liked to see us attack even more out of it,” Mimnaugh said. “Sometimes we’re just happy that we got the ball across half court in 10 seconds.”
The Broncos made a point to get the ball inside to sophomore Megan McGwire, who was averaging 6.5 points and four rebounds through the first four games. The 6-foot-2 forward scored 14 of her game-high 21 points before halftime and also pulled down nine rebounds in her best statistical performance of the season.
Cal Poly forward Hannah Gilbert did her part to match McGwire’s production and finished the game with 10 points and 10 rebounds, including six on the offensive side.
Leaupepe spearheaded an improved effort from Cal Poly’s bench with 12 points, three rebounds, three steals and two assists. Ten Mustangs scored overall, including a season-high 23 points from the six reserves who saw playing time.
“When you have five people on the court that can score at any point, it makes it really hard on defenses,” Balbierz said. “I think we have the ability to do that to teams, we just need, I think, confidence in all aspects.
“It’s still developing but getting better.”