What if Kristine Anigwe hadn’t fouled out? Specifically, what if with three minutes to play, the score tied at 67-67, the Bears hadn’t lost their star player to the bench?
Down by 6 points with 15 seconds to play, the Bears knew their fate had been written; they had fallen to the Bruins for the third time this year — this time in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals.
But while Cal’s 77-74 loss to No. 9 UCLA on Friday may have eliminated it from the conference tournament, it also spoke volumes as to how far the team has come this season.
The Bears’ previous two matchups against UCLA pointed toward a blowout. Coming into this one, their record against top-25 teams also pointed toward a blowout.
In what was a much tighter game than anyone could have predicted, Cal honed in every ounce of its willpower and grit to represent the gold script font on the front of its jerseys — to silence the naysayers — for a hard-fought 40 minutes.
Despite dropping the contest, the Bears held their own against the heavily favored Bruins, putting up double-digit points in all four periods. They even outscored UCLA, 26-19, in the third, and they led by 2 points heading into the final 10 minutes of play.
Four players recorded double digits for the Bears as the team shot a combined 44.6 percent from the field. Cal outshot UCLA from both short range and the three, but it could not close out the contest.
The Bruins, however, capitalized on the Bears’ 14 turnovers, and they pieced together 21 points off of giveaways. Take away a few of those miscues, and the final scoreboard could have easily favored Cal.
Senior guard Mikayla Cowling had a team-high 16 points along with seven boards while playing all 40 minutes, while Anigwe recorded her 11th double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 boards in just 28 minutes.
Cal’s primary bench weapons — sophomores CJ West and Jaelyn Brown — also had solid outings of their own. West, a bit of a late bloomer in the season, put up 9 points and seven rebounds, while Brown supplied 3 points and four boards.
After losing their star in Anigwe with three minutes to play, the Bears could have folded, but that is not characteristic of their belief that they are stronger as a team — and when one player is down, the others are right there to pick her up.
With 26 seconds left on the clock, Thomas was posted at the charity line. Free throw one: good. Free throw two: good.
Cal had made it a one possession game and were chasing three, 71-74 — but still, no cigar.
For the second year in a row, Cal was eliminated from its conference tournament in the quarterfinals, but the women have no reason to hang their heads.
Last year the Bears fell to No. 6 Oregon State, 65-49, but the storyline was far from the same as this the most recent quarterfinal quarrel. Anigwe acted as the team against the Beavers — scoring a team-leading 26 points and nine rebounds — while no other player recorded more than 6 points.
The losses simply felt different. Against OSU, the feeling surrounding the game was likely bitterness. But against UCLA, the feeling was likely heartbreak.
When the Bears return to Berkeley, they will have to move on from the conference loss and await their fate. Cal is optimistic that its name will be called on Selection Sunday, which is coming up in a couple weeks, and that it will make a run for glory in the women’s March Madness tournament.
The Bears’ resume is as follows for NCAA Tournament contention:
Overall record: 21-10
Conference record: 11-7
First round Pac-12 win over Washington: 71-68
Quarterfinal loss to No. 9 UCLA: 74-77
Christie Aguilar is an assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].