Putting the defensive clamps on The Master’s College, Cal State San Marcos bolted to a double-digit first-half lead and scratched out a 58-52 victory Saturday evening in northern San Diego County.

The loss was the first of the season for the Lady Mustangs after opening the 2011-12 campaign last weekend with a pair of victories.

Those wins were made possible by respectable shooting but on this evening none of that was to be found as the Mustangs converted just 21% of their shots in a decisive first half and 24% for the game.

It started early as the Mustangs missed their first five shots before a Lena Rivera three-pointer at the 18:10 mark of the first gave them their only lead at 3-2.  Although it took a while to get there, the Cougars responded with a 10-1 run over a four-minute span to take a lead they would never relinquish.

The Mustangs continued to struggle from the field and the Cougars, who shot 55% over the opening 20 minutes, took advantage, extending the margin into double figures (19-9) on a Jessica Johnson layup with 8:54 left in the first half.   

A pair of three-pointers, one by Ella Joines and the other from Zoe Scott, dropped the Cougar lead back into single digits but the hosts always had an answer, pushing the margin back into double figures, culminating in a 34-24 lead at halftime.

The Mustangs, who shot just 21% (6-29) in the first half, got a free throw from Scott 31 seconds into the final period to make it a nine-point game but they still couldn’t put together any type of run, much less put points on the board as they suffered through a scoring drought of over six minutes.

Fortunately, the Cougars, who shot 39% in the second half, were having the same problem.  So, when TMC’s Kristen Huff tallied on a layup with 13:39 remaining, the Mustangs trailed by only nine, 36-27.

Less than two minutes later, the Mustangs finally put together a run, ripping off five straight points to close to 38-32.  A Joines’ free throw keyed the spurt and Lindsey Levanen and Lauren Labat added two points apiece.

A Sarah Jackson three-ball pushed the Cougar lead back to nine but the Mustangs, somehow overcoming their poor shooting performance, stayed in the game the rest of the way.  A Joines’ trifecta with 7:53 left closed the gap to 44-39, one of three such deficits down the stretch.

However, the Mustangs drew even closer when, with under three minutes to go, Huff swished a jumper, pulling the visitors to within 52-48.  But, as they had all evening, the Cougars answered back, tallying five consecutive points in 21 seconds to push the lead up to nine.  The Mustangs never got closer than the margin of the final score.

Rivera paced the Mustangs with 12 points, her first double-figure outing of the young season, and a game-high five assists.  Joines added 11 more points while Huff tallied eight points and yanked down a team-high eight rebounds.

How the Mustangs respond to their first loss of the season and the daunting schedule they’ll face this coming week will say a lot about their ability to bounce back and play with some of the nation’s top teams.

This coming week, the Mustangs will travel to Jackson, Tennessee, where they’ll run the gauntlet at the Jackson Rotary Classic, one of the NAIA’s premier early-season events.  On consecutive night, the squad will play No. 7 Freed Hardeman, No. 2 and five-time national champion Union, and No. 7 Bethel.