Asha Thomas, Cal women’s basketball look to continue hot shooting vs. Seattle

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When one door closes, another one opens. With sophomore guard Mi’Cole Cayton suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Bears’ season opener, the green light was ignited for her junior backcourt mate Asha Thomas. After a two-game stretch during which she splashed home 13 threes — including a school-record nine in one game — Cal’s starting point guard will look to keep up her long-range barrage on Thursday when the No. 24 Bears (3-2) host Seattle University (3-3).

The Redhawks, hailing from the Western Athletic Conference, come into Berkeley with a few three-point specialists of their own. Despite a poor offensive performance in a trying 79-53 loss to UC Davis its last timeout, Seattle’s lineup features four players shooting above 37 percent from beyond the arc. With the Bears struggling to defend 3-point shooting against their early season opponents, it’s evident that stopping the ball early on defense will prove vital against Seattle’s sharpshooters.

A conference first-teamer last season, redshirt senior Alexis Montgomery is the unquestioned leader of the Redhawks on both sides of the ball. As one of the toughest pre-conference matchups opposing Cal and head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, Montgomery will likely be countered with senior forward Mikayla Cowling, arguably the Bears’ most versatile and durable defender.

With added responsibility to step up in her teammate’s absence, Thomas has emerged as one of the top three-point threats in the Pac-12. Channeling her inner Stephen Curry, Thomas has established herself as the Bears’ top offensive threat behind All-American forward junior Kristine Anigwe in the early going, averaging 13.6 points per game on 42.9 percent from three-point range.

But Thomas is not the only guard who has helped fill the rotation spot vacated by Cayton. After being promoted to the starting lineup, freshman Kianna Smith has excelled in her new role. Her 12 assists in Cal’s 87-66 win over Manhattan represented the most by any Cal player in the last two seasons. That along with a career-high 33 minutes of action with just one turnover against No. 23 Missouri were enough to earn her Pac-12 freshman of the week.

As a 2017 McDonald’s All-American, this was hardly a surprise for Smith when given the playing time to perform. But despite the smooth transition from Cayton to Smith in the backcourt, the Bears still fell short on Sunday to Missouri 55-52 during the final game of the Cal Classic. At the end of a defensive struggle, Thomas had a chance to tie the game with another three but her attempt missed off the mark, dropping the Bears to 3-2 on the season.

After leading the team to an 89-79 victory at Brown, Anigwe was held to just 13 points across the two games upon returning from the Bears’ brief East Coast road trip. With team-leading averages of 14.4 points and 9.4 rebounds, it’s only a matter of time before Anigwe re-establishes herself as a double-double threat on a nightly basis. Perhaps Thursday morning’s matinee with the Redhawks, a team that surrendered far too many easy buckets to UC Davis, is the matchup for Anigwe to exploit.

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

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