With bitter taste in mouth, Cal women’s basketball readies for big year

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“I’m going to do everything I can to never feel this way again.”

Every athlete will echo the message that no form of losing is fun. But it’s no secret that a three-point nail-biter is quite stark from a 40-point-loss, and the taste left in the mouth during the latter is more sour from a pride point of view.

Coming off of a short postseason that ended by nearly getting doubled up on the scoreboard, Cal women’s basketball is no stranger to swallowing a trying defeat. But in the aftermath of No. 1-seeded Baylor’s 86-46 second round win over the Bears, it took just a baker’s dozen of words for Cal’s star forward Kristine Anigwe to sum up her team’s offseason mentality. With an assiduous teamwide effort, the Bears will be back.

And back they are nearly eight months later, as the AP-ranked No. 20 team in the nation, looking to move on from ending a sluggish season with a blowout loss. The 2017-2018 season tips off with head coach Lindsay Gottlieb at the helm for the seventh season, an era that has seen the Bears peak with an NCAA Final Four appearance and fall to a dismal 10th-place finish in the Pac-12 just three years later, when they missed the tournament entirely.

Perhaps appearing in the NCAA tournament, albeit briefly, is just the thing to ignite a new outlook heading into this season, a reminder of what it takes to continue the team’s ascendance toward the top tier of the country.

Despite all of last year’s struggles leading to a 6-12 conference record, there’s plenty of reason for optimism. The core of Gottlieb’s lineup will consist of returning juniors Anigwe and guard Asha Thomas, along with senior forwards Mikayla Cowling and Penina Davidson. Having lost just one rotation player in WNBA-bound Courtney Range, the chemistry built between the veteran players on this season’s team will undoubtedly prove beneficial.

It all starts with the 6’4” Anigwe, whose 50-point, 14-rebound performance against Sacramento State last December stands as one of the most dominant all-around games ever by a Cal player. With four more games of 30 points or more during her sophomore season, the two-time Pac-12 First Teamer is destined to draw the attention of defenses early and often in games, leaving ample opportunities for her teammates to step up.

One of the biggest question marks heading into Friday’s opening matchup with St. Mary’s surrounds how polished Cal’s backcourt rotation will be, led by junior 5’4” Thomas and complemented by an increase in minutes for sophomore Jaelyn Brown. Add newcomers Kianna Smith and Archer Olson to the mix, and the team is left with a developing group of perimeter players who might be the difference between a much-improved lineup and an undistinguished performance similar to that of last year.

St. Mary’s will play primarily through senior guard Stella Beck, one of three top scorers from last year returning to the Gaels this season. Predicted to be one of the top teams in the West Coast Conference, the Gaels suffered a preseason blow when Beck’s backcourt mate went down with a season-ending leg injury playing internationally in August.

With the Bears hoping to avoid a repeat of last season’s trying times, there’s no question that a new tone has been established. Now it’s up to Cal to allow the results to reflect that change.

Josh Yuen covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].

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