Cal Poly eyes history against Penn State

Cal Poly's Jonae Ervin, left, and Ariana Elegado kiss the trophy as they celebrate their 63-49 victory over Pacific in the Big West women's championship game in Anaheim, Calif., on Saturday, March 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Cal Poly's Jonae Ervin, left, and Ariana Elegado kiss the trophy as they celebrate their 63-49 victory over Pacific in the Big West women's championship game in Anaheim, Calif., on Saturday, March 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

You’re supposed to act like you’ve been here before.

It’s good advice, but try telling that to the first-time NCAA women’s tournament qualifiers from Cal Poly.

“It’s surreal and hard to get used to,” junior center Molly Schlemer said of Sunday’s first-round game against Penn State in LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center. “But we’re just taking it all in and enjoying every minute of it. We’re all really glad we’re here and that we’ve made it this far.”

But if history holds, this will be as far as Cal Poly goes.

The Mustangs (21-10) are the No. 14 seed and, since 1994 when full seeding was first used, 14s are 0-76.

First-timers usually don’t do well either. Quinnipiac and Wichita State, the other schools making their tournament debuts this season, were one-and-done Saturday.

“Yeah, we’re underdogs,” senior guard Caroline Reeves said. “But we have a lot of heart, and we play hard. I think sometimes that can beat a better team.”

Maybe so, but it’s still an uphill climb for the Californians.

For starters, Penn State (25-5) is generally considered underseeded as a No. 3. The Lady Lions (25-5) were the Big Ten regular-season champions and likely headed for a No. 2 seed until they lost to Michigan State in the semifinals of the conference tournament.

Penn State features Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas, a 5-foot-10 junior guard. And Penn State has a rich NCAA tournament history: This is the school’s third straight appearance and 24th overall, a total topped by only 10 others.

The Lady Lions don’t mind making a second straight trip to Baton Rouge either. Last year, they advanced to the Round of 16 by beating LSU on its home court.

“I loved playing here last year,” senior guard Alex Bentley said. “The facility is awesome, the place is great and there were plenty of fans out here, so it’s an exciting environment. Any time we can come south to play, it’s a good thing.”

Penn State isn’t taking anything for granted. Last year, as a No. 4 seed, the Lady Lions got a tougher time from No. 13 seed Texas El-Paso (85-77) than they did from No. 5 LSU (80-70).

“We can see that in this tournament everyone is capable of beating anyone,” Lucas said. “Cal Poly has a lot of strengths, and we know they’re excited because we are, too. So we won’t take them lightly or be looking ahead. They’re here because they deserve to be.”

The Mustangs qualified for the NCAAs — which the men’s program hasn’t done since the school moved to Division I in 1997 — by winning the Big West tournament after falling in the final the previous two seasons.

It was a costly victory, though. Senior guard Kayla Griffin, the team’s assists leader who also was second in rebounds, went down with a season-ending knee injury.

“That was substantial for us,” coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “She had everything coming through her. She had a never-quit attitude. So losing her is significant to our program and certainly for this game.”

Senior forward Nikol Allison, who has made only two career starts and missed the past two seasons with injuries, replaces Griffin.

“We’re underdogs because we’re undersized,” Reeves said. “So our goal is to play really hard. It’s potentially our last game, and we’ve got nothing to lose. So why not go for every loose ball and pull the upset?”

And in the process make Cal Poly the Florida Gulf Coast of the women’s tournament?

“We’ve been watching the (men’s tournament), and there have been a lot of upsets,” said Schlemer, the Big West Player of the Year. “Anything is possible. We have to go out there and just remember what we do because, when we do what we do, we do it well.

“Confidence is the key.”