Cal women’s basketball tops St. Mary’s at home

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Lianne Frick/File

When crafty athletes are ahead of the field in transition, good things tend to happen. Such was the case when Cal’s pesky guards turned aggressive defense into high percentage shots early on during Friday night’s 87-80 win over St. Mary’s. But with transition play sporadic due to the physical nature of the contest, favorable shots in transition were anything but commonplace for either side. In the end, the Bears had to dig deep to come out on top.

One of a coach’s nightmares is having a star player in foul trouble early in a game. When junior forward Kristine Anigwe picked up her second foul less than four minutes into the contest, head coach Lindsay Gottlieb had little choice but to take her out.

The good news for Gottlieb? Anigwe wasn’t the only player getting whistled. Whether it was opening game excitement or nervousness from, 14 fouls were called in the first quarter of play, irritating players on both sides. The initial results yielded a five-point lead for the Gaels, as a combination of over aggressive play by the Bears and outside shooting gave the visitors an early edge.

The lead was short-lived. With Anigwe returning to the game a few minutes later, the Bears implemented a three-quarter court press, shifting the pressure onto the Gaels backcourt of senior Stella Beck and sophomore Jasmine Forcadilla. Two turnovers forced by the Bears’ defense later, a 7-0 run propelled the Bears to a 19-16 advantage.

“The foul trouble was tough but I bounced back and am proud of our team,” Anigwe said.

The second quarter featured the emergence of sophomore Mi’cole Cayton and freshman Alaysia Styles, who along with seniors Mikayla Cowling and Penina Davidson, took advantage of sloppy play from their opposition. The phrase “defense leads to offense” became a common theme for the Bears after the slow-moving, whistle-filled first quarter, as several takeaways led to a number of uncontested layups. Despite Anigwe picking up her third foul late in the half, it was the home team who sported a 47-36 lead at halftime.

After suffering an injury scare to the side of her head midway through the second quarter, Anigwe entered the second half looking to avenge for a rough first half. Named to the 2018 Katrina McClain Award Watch List earlier this week, the final stat sheet might not fully reflect how her presence was felt offensively. But with the Gaels’ frontcourt players constantly looking for No. 31, the floor was opened up for five of her teammates to reach double figures in points.

“I love the balance that we had,” Gottlieb said. “The poise that our players had down the stretch was huge for us.”

But St. Mary’s would continue to chip away, eliminating the halftime deficit entirely after a flurry of threes from Beck and freshman Emily Codding. By outscoring Cal in every facet of shooting in the third quarter, the Gaels found themselves tied with their NorCal rivals with just one quarter to play. Much like Cal did in the first half, St. Mary’s utilized pushing the ball in transition to find open shooters on the wing.

A back and forth fourth quarter was inevitable, as both teams jostled for the late edge. Feeding junior Megan McKay did the Bears no favors, as none of her 17 points were bigger than the two that gave St. Mary’s a 73-71 lead halfway through the fourth. But the Bears responded with a push from Cayton, Anigwe and freshman Kianna Smith, who picked up the first of hopefully many clutch buckets for the Bears.

The final two minutes of play were dampered by an injury to Cayton, who played a fantastic game on both sides of the ball. Unable to put weight on her right leg, Cayton watched from the bench as her backcourt teammates Smith and junior Asha Thomas helped seal the win with clutch defense and free-throw shooting. Despite a challenging third quarter, the Bears will take their 1-0 start amped up for an East Coast meeting with No. 1 UConn next week, hopeful that Cayton’s injury isn’t too severe.

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