SEASIDE, Calif. — University of San Francisco freshman Julia Nielacna scored just seven points in the first half on Sunday against Cal Poly. After scoring 17 two nights prior against No. 7 Stanford, it was a disappointing 20 minutes of basketball.
But, as she stood at the free throw line with six seconds left, up by just one over the Mustangs, she took a big breath, and nailed a pair of freebies.
“I think about practice. This is normal practice. We hit a lot of free throws in practice, and again, it’s the same things — just see your shot,” Nielacna said.
While the air may have been cleaner than what Nielacna and the Dons left behind in smoke-choked San Francisco, the game was anything but. A total of 42 personal fouls were called, and Cal Poly and San Francisco shot a combined 51 free throws. In a stop-and-start game, and despite a crowd heavily tilted in the Mustangs’ favor, the Dons came away with a 65-62 win, behind 24 points from Neilacna.
Because of air quality that ranged from very unhealthy to hazardous over the last 10 days due to the Camp fire in Butte County, San Francisco moved its Sunday home game against Cal Poly nearly halfway to the San Luis Obispo campus. The Dons have been able to practice normally, though not without difficulty, over the past week.
“It was a little bit harder, breathing,” said Nielacna, a freshman from Ostrów Wielkopolski, Poland. “This air quality, we’ve never had anything like that in Poland. It’s something new for me.”
More than 100 miles from where the Dons and the Mustangs were supposed to play on Sunday, San Francisco was able to trade smoke, ash and face masks for a gentle sea breeze and clear skies outside Cal State Monterey Bay’s Kelp Bed arena.
Cal Poly, despite being that much closer to home, and not having dealt with the choking atmosphere in the Bay Area, came out disjointed, hitting just two shots in their first nine possessions, with two turnovers. The Mustangs, though, was nails at the line, hitting five of their first six. The Dons, who started on a 7-0 run, didn’t get to the line until there was just 2:10 left in the first period, and at that point, the two teams were knotted at 13-13.
“We knew this game would be tough,” Nielacna said. “We have problems with fouls, mostly in the first half. It’s really bad. We had a lot of fouls, they shot a lot of free throws.”
A three from the right corner at the buzzer by Marta Galic got San Francisco ahead 19-15, but the second quarter saw the Mustangs rip off a 13-3 run, going 4-for-9 from the floor and 5-for-8 from the free-throw line as the Dons went just 1-for-8 with four turnovers over the first eight minutes.
Cal Poly was stronger, longer, more athletic and more under-control than the Dons, getting in the faces of shooters and staying active in passing lanes. Most importantly, the Mustangs were able to neutralize Nielacna, who shot 3-of-4 in the first half, but didn’t get many clean looks.
Still, a baseline jumper by Galic at the halftime buzzer capped a 9-2 run to finish the stanza, tying things at 30-30 as the Mustangs failed to hit a field goal for the final 2:44.
Katie Nunnley, though, was tough to stop from 12 feet and in. After scoring 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting in the first half, she hit three shots in the first five minutes of the third quarter, staking the Mustangs to a 39-33 lead.
Galic came up big again during a flurry of action at the end of the third, pulling down an offensive rebound and cashing it in for a lay-up, before Nia Alexander hit a lay-up of her own and then blocked Kirsty Brown on the other end. Nielacna took a hit going up for a bucket of her own, and hit both of her free throws to keep the Dons within four, down 46-42.
San Francisco went on a 7-2 run to open the fourth, with a step-back 3-pointer by Moa Lundqvist with 8:31 to go in regulation, giving San Francisco its first lead since 6:56 in the second quarter.
After scoring just seven points in the first half, Nielacna poured in 10 in the first 15:37 of the second, and continued her onslaught as the game got tighter, finishing 6-of-10 shooting and 12-of-14 at the free throw line.
After a top-of-the-arc three by Malia Holt, Nielacna fired a long two from the left wing on the other end, giving the Dons the lead back with 21.7 seconds left. The Mustangs then took their final time out.
With San Francisco up by one, Devin Stanback missed an under-the-basket lay-up, and wrestled for the rebound with Lundqvist, rolling out of bounds with 10 seconds to go with 8.9 left. As the referee awarded possession to the Dons, Neilacna let out a roar. Moments later, she would hit her pair of free throws to ice the game.