Tale of the Tape: Mikayla Cowling, Cal women’s basketball team score 3 on Buffs

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Heyun Jeong/Staff

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The Cal women’s basketball team has had a rough season. It’s been a season that has seen its crests and troughs — the crests coming in nonconference play and the troughs being the dismal performance in conference play.

Team performances aside, the Bears have seen some great individual performances from their players. While the sum of the parts has not been good enough, some individual efforts have been praiseworthy. Forward Kristine Anigwe is the centerpiece of this Cal squad, but this season is also the one in which guard Mikayla Cowling has stepped up as a genuine two-way player.

Apart from being a resolute defender who is adept at hounding opponents, Cowling has also taken huge strides on the offensive end, and the numbers speak for themselves. She’s scoring 9.4 points game — third highest for the team. She’s also shooting a decent 45.9 percent from the field, which is an improvement from the 43 percent she shot the season before.

Cowling’s development as a versatile offensive player has led to her becoming a reliable second or third scoring option for the team. She is comfortable with driving to the basket as well as shooting from mid-range. She has also worked on her three-point shooting and has become a potent wing shooter, which can be seen in the tape.

Now that I’ve babbled on about Cowling’s merits, let’s take a look at the play.

The setting: Cal, wearing pink, is hosting Colorado, in black. The Buffs are leading the hosts, 47-41, with six seconds left in the third quarter. The Bears have possession, with Asha Thomas squaring off against senior Haley Smith at the three-point line, on the left diagonal from the basket. The other Cal players on the court are Cowling, Anigwe, CJ West and Mi’Cole Cayton.

Cal needs to score in order to bridge the six-point gap. A two-pointer will be sufficient, but a three-pointer will be able to turn it into a one-possession match.

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Thomas passes the ball to Cowling, who is positioned on the left side of the paint. Now, as soon as Cowling gets the ball, she is double-teamed by Makenzie Ellis and Smith, who leave Thomas open.

Now Cowling, with her back to the basket, passes the ball back to Thomas at the three-point line. Smith then retreats back to cover Thomas. Thomas, noticing the small opening, moves with the ball to the place where Cowling originally was. Cowling, on the other hand, takes advantage of the confusion that the rushing Thomas creates and evades Ellis to move to the wing, unmarked.

Thomas, who has now successfully created space for Cowling by drawing two defenders on herself, quickly passes the ball to Cowling on the wing. Ellis and Smith, dumbfounded by the play, are now in a fix. Smith tries to salvage something, as she moves to put up a hand and disorient Cowling’s shooting motion. But it is too late for the Buffs, as the milliseconds of time afforded were enough for the Bears’ guard to release a shot from the wing, with 1.4 seconds to go. Cowling’s shooting motion is fluid coupled with a perfect follow up. The ball takes on a familiar arc, and with a third of a second left, it goes in.

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Three points to the Bears. End of the third quarter. 47-44 Colorado.

A cursory glance at the play would suggest that Colorado was outplayed by Thomas and Cowling, but a deeper analysis suggests that this was an improvisation on Cal’s offensive strategy.

Notice the positions that Anigwe and West take once the ball is in play. Anigwe is positioned at the right side of the paint, marked by Kennedy Leonard and Zoe Correal. This means that Cayton, who is hovering around the three-point line on the right, is totally open.

Also note the position West moves to as soon as Cowling gets the ball for the first time. West moves from the key to outside the arc and automatically offers a passing option for Cowling. As a result, the Buffs’ Alexis Robinson moves closer to her than Cowling, who could easily have been triple teamed, which would have reduced the chances of scoring on the play drastically.

West’s position is crucial, because if she had received a pass, she was in the perfect place to either pass on the ball to the open Cayton or lob the ball to Anigwe, who is deadly with her back to the basket. Thus, the Buffs are mired in a situation where all they can do is minimize the points conceded.

That being said, the pair of Cowling and Thomas do an impressive job by being able to contend with the double teams, and then end up scoring, all in six seconds.

It is situations like this — where Anigwe has been neutralized because of tight double-teams — where Cowling has emerged as a bankable finisher, and this play embodies the guard’s ever-growing skill set. If Cowling is able to continue with her intelligent off-the-ball movement in the future, then her path to becoming a bonafide star will come easier.

Devang Prasad covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DevangPrasad.