With a Cal State Fullerton team desperate for a victory at Mott Athletics Center on Saturday afternoon, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team just needed to find a way to hold on.
The Mustangs played through a poor shooting performance and made enough defensive plays down the stretch to secure a 51-46 victory over the Titans in a Big West Conference match-up.
Senior guard Lisa Marie Sanchez and junior forward Hannah Gilbert scored 12 points each for Cal Poly (9-7, 2-1 Big West), which won its fifth straight home game and sent Cal State Fullerton to its 15th consecutive loss.
“We talked before the game that I anticipated that they’d play a lot of zone today because they were limited in their personnel,” Cal Poly coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “I cautioned them before the game, we wanted to stay under 25 (3-pointers attempted) for the game.”
The Titans (2-15, 0-3) were without standout freshman Michelle Berry, who missed her first game of the season with a concussion. The 6-foot-2 small forward leads Cal State Fullerton in scoring at 14.1 points per game, the third-highest total in the Big West.
She turned in a 38-point performance against Portland State in mid-November, which still stands as the highest single-game total in the conference this season. Without Berry, the Titans struggled to find much rhythm offensively and relied on a zone defense to slow Cal Poly’s dribble-drive offense.
In turn, the Mustangs settled for long jump shots and went 4 of 27 from behind the 3-point line (14.8 percent) and made 31 percent of their shots overall. Two games in a row, Cal Poly has attempted more than 25 3-pointers — something Mimnaugh doesn’t expect to be a trend going forward.
“I thought that we weren’t hungry enough to keep motion going and feed our interior,” Mimnaugh said.
Trailing by two points to start the third quarter, Cal State Fullerton made five of its first seven shots from the field and knocked down four 3-pointers to take a 37-30 lead. The Mustangs were quick to answer with an 11-0 run, thanks in part to seven consecutive points from Gilbert.
Gilbert seemed to be the stabilizing presence inside Cal Poly needed in the second half, and she helped anchor an improved effort defensively in the final period. The Titans were held without a field goal for more than six minutes to start the fourth quarter, eventually breaking the cold streak when Lauren Nubla made a layup with 3:29 to go.
“This year, (Gilbert is) definitely more assertive, as far as wanting the ball and calling for the ball,” said Sanchez, who scored 10 of her 12 points in the second half. “We kind of feel like she’s our go-to when we need that bucket right then and there.”
Cal Poly’s pressure defense was particularly disruptive early. The Mustangs swiped seven steals and forced the Titans into 12 first-half turnovers — 23 for the game — helping offset a cold shooting performance through the first two quarters.
Sophomore guard Gabby Grupalo gave the Mustangs some quality minutes off the bench in her first extended action at home this season. Coming off a career-high 25-point performance in a win over UC Irvine last week, Grupalo did a little bit of everything against the Titans.
With senior Beth Balbierz in foul trouble, Grupalo played a season-high 32 minutes and finished the game with four points, four rebounds, five assists and four steals.
“As she’s gotten more minutes, she’s kind of settled in and it’s slowed down for her,” Mimnaugh said. “Defensively she’s always been a real spark plug for us. It’s fun to see the offense starting to come around.”
Cal Poly continues its three-game homestand next week, and will host Cal State Northridge at 7 p.m. Thursday and UC Davis at 4 p.m. Saturday.