Cal women’s basketball pulls away in 2nd half to beat USC 71-58 in Pac-12 tournament

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Lianne Frick/File

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Headed into today, the Cal women’s basketball team had reached the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament for 14 consecutive years. For 14 years, the Bears have been able to go past the opening stage of the tournament in some way or the other. But this year, heading into the tournament, there were doubts about whether Cal would be able to go past the first round. The team had underperformed in conference play during the season, going 6-12, and its play was notoriously inconsistent.

Enter Kristine Anigwe to dispel all doubts.

The forward dominated Cal’s first-round matchup against USC as she scored 34 points, shooting 63.2 percent from the floor. Anigwe also recorded a double-double as she collected 13 rebounds along with four rejections.

It was a dominant performance that no doubt enabled Cal to beat the Trojans, 71-58.

The first quarter of the match was back and forth as both Cal and USC looked to assert themselves as quickly as possible. The quarter saw USC’s Kristen Simon come out all guns blazing as she scored eight points. But Cal had its own answer in the form of guard Mi’Cole Cayton, who dropped six points and displayed great tenacity on both ends of the court. Cayton also recorded a block and a steal in the quarter.

Cal’s ball handling was, as it has been all season, sub-par. The team committed 13 turnovers in the first half alone, wasting away crucial possessions. The Trojans, however, were unable to capitalize on Cal’s repeated mistakes as they only scored 10 points off of turnovers. Had USC been more effective in punishing Cal’s carelessness with the ball, the result could have gone the other way.

Simon was assisted offensively by a bevy of teammates, and USC led by eight. But a solid 10-0 run for the Bears allowed them to go into the lead at the end of the half. Guard Mikayla Cowling and Anigwe ran riot as they combined to score eight points in the last 3.5 minutes of the second quarter.

Cal started proceedings early in the second half with Anigwe, who scored two baskets. Both baskets came with Anigwe using her strength to shake off her defenders and score in the paint, a strategy that was the 6-foot-4 forward’s bread and butter throughout the match. The Trojans tried to launch their own comeback as they went on a 7-0 run, cutting the Bears’ lead to two. But Anigwe came to Cal’s rescue as she scored 12 points in the quarter.

USC kept the pressure on Cal as it continued to get a basket or two that stopped Cal from setting an unassailable lead. The Trojans embarked on a 6-0 run in the last 3.5 minutes of the quarter, cutting Cal’s lead to three.

A Valerie Higgins three pointer early on in the fourth, tied the game. The three pointer was only the second of the game, in a match that was characterized by poor long-range shooting from both sides until this quarter. The Bears, in spite of relinquishing the lead, got their mojo back together and were able to storm to a seven-point lead. Anigwe, who had a very effective game in the paint, also popped up with a three-pointer in the sixth minute. Thanks to some strong team play and a very efficient zonal defense that did not allow USC too much space to work with, Cal was able to advance to the quarterfinals.

While Anigwe was the primary orchestrator for Cal’s win, credit also has to go to the mental strength of the team. It  committed 13 turnovers in the first half but became much more careful in the second half as its turnovers went down to six. The team also shot a very healthy 55.3 percent from the field overall. In the end, it was Anigwe’s skill set that allowed Cal to pound USC in the paint, outscoring the Trojans 48-30.

Cal’s performance today was praiseworthy, but it is slated to face Oregon State next. The Beavers have had Cal’s number this season with two convincing wins. If Cal is to win, it will have to look to another special performance from Anigwe and company.

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