No. 21 Cal women’s basketball takes on Cal Poly

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Within 24 hours of upsetting then-No. 8 Louisville, Cal women’s basketball was back in a familiar place — the top 25. Right where it belongs.

The No. 21 Bears (2-0) will look to solidify their position in the rankings when they take on Cal Poly (1-1) on Sunday in their second game of the weekend after playing UC Riverside on Friday.

Cal will be heavily favored against the Mustangs, who went 15-14 last season and were picked to finish third in the mid-major Big West in the conference’s preseason polls — a finish that would safely put them a tier under a team like the Bears. But Cal Poly’s 2015-16 campaign has gotten off to a slow start and lost its most recent game to Texas Rio Grande Valley, 66-58. Given the talent disparity, Cal Poly could be left trying unique looks on defense to slow down the Bears’ impressive frontcourt.

Cal junior Courtney Range and freshman Kristine Anigwe have helped the Bears control the paint thus far this season. The two lead the team in scoring with 72 of Cal’s 142 points this year and displayed how unstoppable they could be in the Louisville game. The matchup served as a coming-out party for Anigwe, who scored 19 points on only 10 shots.

The stat sheet, however, doesn’t fully capture the extent to which Anigwe’s impact could be felt on the offense. Because she scored nearly every time she touched the ball in the post, the Cardinals started selling out on defense to front Anigwe and prevent her from beating them. This made it easier for the rest of the offense to function because, when Anigwe didn’t score herself, she could look up and see a wide open shooter in the corner.

“Having my teammates have my back, I felt like they had confidence in me to do what they know I can do,” Anigwe said after the game. “I just tried to play at my pace and play how the coaches told us we needed to play.”

Anigwe’s play in the post has mostly been facilitated by freshman guard Asha Thomas. Her value has mostly been felt when she has started the offense, whether she’s the one directly feeding Anigwe and Range the ball or the one directing the Bears into their sets. But Thomas couldn’t be entirely responsible for throwing the entry passes, especially when Louisville started fronting Anigwe. At that point, a normal entry pass would be risky, so Thomas initiated the action that led to the Bears swinging the ball around until they had a clean angle for a pass to Anigwe, something Cal will likely have to do against the undersized Mustangs as well. Anigwe’s six-foot-four frame makes it easier to find these angles.

“Obviously, the height gave us an advantage down low and that’s something that we work on every day,” Range said.

The Bears’ height advantage — Thomas is the only player under six feet tall to get consistent playing time — means that if all goes as expected, they should dominate on the boards and in the paint on both sides of the ball. As the clear underdog, Cal Poly may be driven to experiment with new schemes to give itself a chance to win. This makes the Mustangs a more dangerous team than they may look to be on paper, and they could very well play aggressively enough to at least keep the game close.

Hooman Yazdanian covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian