Last season, the Cal Poly Mustangs won a share of the Big West regular season title despite 2010 Big West Player of the Year Kristina Santiago redshirting due to injury.
So with Santiago back, it isn't terribly surprising that media members selected them as the preseason favorite to win the conference. And it wouldn't be a whole lot more surprising if they actually ended up winning the Big West conference tournament and finding themselves in the NCAA Tournament as well this year.
"Cal Poly's a good team," said USF coach Jennifer Azzi after a 82-66 loss to the Mustangs in San Francisco last night. "They won their conference, they're way ahead of us in terms of how long their staff has been there. So I think the thing I have to remind myself is as much as I hate to lose, it's still a process."
In the first half of last night's loss, Santiago showed that part of that process is simply trying to figure out how to compete with the stars of a tournament-caliber team.
Santiago made her presence felt relatively quickly, recording 23 points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone. At a slender 6'1", it's not exactly like she was merely overpowering the Dons in the paint either.
Cal Poly statistical MVP: Kristina Santiago finished with a dominant 36 points, 15 rebounds
Santiago just seemed to have a knack for finding gaps in the defense and establishing position so she was able to score with one or two quick moves. On the block, it was with a combination of decisive fakes and nimble footwork. Further out from the basket, she was able to create space between her and her defender to hit a few jumpers. There just wasn't a whole lot anyone on USF could do to stop her - that was quite simply one of the more complete, dominant and efficient performances I've seen from a post player in a college game.
And it's not like Cal Poly was trying to keep their interest in getting the ball to her a secret or anything - with a usage percentage of 37.54% for the game, it certainly got to a point where everyone in War Memorial Gym probably expected her to get the ball about two to three steps from scoring. She ended up finishing with 40.21% of the Mustangs' overall statistical production.
But when USF came out in the second half using a combination of double teams, 2-3 zone defense and just stronger position defense from players like 6'2" junior forward Whitney Daniels, Cal Poly had to adjust by either finding a way to set up Santiago to score in other ways or finding other players to pick up the slack.
They chose the latter.
Key statistic: Cal Poly outshot USF even when Santiago had a scoring drought
USF's halftime adjustments worked to contain Santiago for the first six minutes of the second half -
Nevertheless, the scoreboard seemed to indicate that things were getting worse, not better.
After heading into halftime down only 9, Azzi and her Dons found themselves down 16 points with 14:54 left before Santiago even scored a point; after Santiago scored on consecutive possessions and blocked a USF shot in the interim, USF found themselves down 18 with 13:58 left.
Part of that was that while the Dons did hold the Mustangs to 39% shooting from the field in the second half, the Dons only shot 29% themselves.
"I've found it really interesting with our team sometimes: we'll focus on one thing but then it's like with everything else, just forget about it," said Azzi. "So it's trying to get them to focus on what we need to stop, what we need to do offensively, but then not forgetting about everything else."
Key player: Christine Martin took advantage of USF's tunnel vision
But to Azzi's point, the other part of the problem was that keeping Santiago from getting another double-double in the second half demanded the attention of the entire defense. As a result, there were a number of defensive lapses that other Mustangs players were able to take advantage of not only in terms of scoring, but also in smaller aspects like rebounding.
Aside from setting up Santiago for an easy layup on a cut to the basket, Martin made exactly the type of play that concerned Azzi as time started to become more and more the Dons' enemy. After a missed three point attempt by Mustangs guard Caroline Reeves, two Dons players immediately moved to box out Santiago leaving Martin alone under the basket on the weak side. The ball seemingly fell right to Martin, who went right back up and drew the foul.
Martin deserves a ton of credit for her 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting, but really the Mustangs had a number of complementary players step up: juniors Kayla Griffin and Brittany Woodard were only a few points or rebounds shy of double-doubles themselves and the team's overall ball handling was actually quite outstanding.
Martin tied a team-high pure point rating of 9.52, which is a misleading number because she wasn't responsible for making plays as often as others. But their point guards were more outstanding than their numbers imply in multiple ways. Freshman point guard Ariana Elegado set up more scoring opportunities with her quickness and court vision than her 2 assists suggest. And 5'3" reigning Big West Player of the Week Jonae Ervin was the player who most consistently dominated the flow of the game.
It was easy to see how Ervin dropped a career-high 33 points on Oregon last week, even in a relatively modest 9 point, 4 assist performance last night. Ervin has two speeds: quick and lightning fast. At one point after beating USF senior Rheina Ale to the basket a few times for layups or free throws, a fan from the crowd yelled, "Make her go left! She can't go left!" Well, maybe that's half true - she mostly scores off drives to the right; she likes driving and setting up her teammates for shots when she drives left. Regardless of what anyone thinks of her ability to go left, before Santiago had USF's defense off-balance, it was Ervin.
But all of that is to illustrate the difference between these two teams.
USF statistical MVP: Rheina Ale scores a career-high 27 points
Rheina Ale carried her team from the perimeter in a way similar to how Santiago did in the post: she played the full 40 and was responsible for about 36% of her team's overall statistical production while scoring 27 points on 23 shots. And although she wasn't particularly efficient in getting that career-high, she can probably be forgiven seeing as how she also led the team in rebounding with 12.
Though only 5'8", she certainly fit the mold of what some might call a "power guard" in last night's contest: as fearless in taking the ball into the trees for a basket as she is in taking a contested pull-up jumper.
"I think a lot of it is her mindset: she doesn't care if she's scores or not," said Azzi of her point guard and leading scorer. "She's become really a leader of our team. I think one of the biggest curses in basketball is when you're worried about yourself; she's not worried about her self anymore, she wants to win."
The problem for the Dons last night and on the season is that Ale isn't getting quite the help that Santiago got in the second half last night.
Junior Mel Khlok scored 7 of her 10 in the second half and athletic freshman guard Taj Winston made some outstanding defensive plays, finishing with a game-high 4 blocks. But Ale was the one player they had who was consistently able to create shots - for herself and others - when the team needed it. So while they were locked in on stopping Santiago, they're still relying heavily on following the routines the coaching staff sets out for them.
"It's kind of like offensively, if we're saying, 'Run x thing', they're so into doing that, that it's (not) just playing basketball," Azzi said, continuing the previous point about their tendency to adopt a singular focus on one thing. "So they're still learning."
But that they've moved forward in the learning process is visible compared to where this team was at about this point last season.
Although Ale is indeed responsible for the offense, they're still competing on more possessions than they might have against a team this talented last season, when they lost to a Santiago-less Cal Poly team by 25 points on the road.
So while losing is tough for a Hall of Fame caliber competitor like Azzi, at least one of her coaching peers is starting to take notice of their improvement even in a loss that clearly reveals the need for further improvements.
"Building this program is a process," said Azzi. "[Cal Poly coach Faith Mimnaugh] said to me after the game - she just shook her head and she said - 'You guys are entirely different than a year ago.' While that feels good, there are just so many things that we know we need to get better."
- It seemed as though the person in the crowd yelling at Ale and other USF defenders to force Ervin left was actually one of Ale's family members. And they would have a pretty detailed scouting report: Ale's sister, Kristen, is a freshman at Cal Poly. It was sort of funny to hear them yelling at USF's defense to force Ervin left on one play and then cheering on their younger daughter when she put up a shot for Cal Poly.
- Reported attendance last night was 1,361 but that might be due to some fuzzy math: the USF men's team had a game against San Jose State after the women's game and one ticket was good for both games. But did the doubleheader help the attendance for the women's game - hard to say, but the 30 minute break between games might have been as much a deterrent for women's basketball fans to stay as it was for men's basketball fans to arrive a bit early.
- But something "cool" did happen after the men's game, which they won 83-81 in an exciting overtime game: a handful of men's players (underclassmen?) came back out and helped clean up two games worth of fan trash from the stands. Not often you see that at a Division I program, but perhaps that fits within the Jesuit tradition of service.
- At halftime of each game, the USF women's cross country team was honored: they are the first-ever USF men's or women's team to qualify for the NCAA Division I National Championships.
- Azzi commented on her recent Naismith Hall of Fame nomination and why it's "bittersweet" as USF tries to just get their first home win.