There are 11 seconds left in the third quarter as Cal guard Asha Thomas dribbles, awaiting a screen to spring her open for a chance at a buzzer beater. Forward Kristine Anigwe runs up and sets a pick. It doesn’t take Thomas’ defender out of the play, but it gives her a sliver of open space. Thomas runs past the screen and to the 3-point line, rises up and drains it just before the buzzer sounds to give her team a 52-46 lead.
“Coming in here, I had to be confident taking this role,” Thomas, who scored 16 points, said.
On Friday, No. 21 Cal (3-0) managed to hold on to this slim lead to win, 64-58, and avoid an upset to stay undefeated early in the season.
UC Riverside set the tone for its defensive game plan from the get go. Anigwe got the ball in the post on the Bears’ first possession only to be faced with a double team and turn the ball over. The Highlanders knew Cal would be intent on getting the ball to its freshman star in the post. They sent two, three or even four defenders at Anigwe and took her out of the game, and she ended with only 10 points.
This failure to get Anigwe the ball in positions where she could score contributed to a slow first quarter of offense for the Bears. Cal managed only 11 points in the period with five turnovers.
The Bears began to take a new approach to try to revitalize their offense and started looking to other contributors. Cal started using junior forward Courtney Range more on offense, feeding her the ball all over the court. She made three treys in the second quarter and led the team with 13 points in the first half. This wasn’t enough to give Cal the lead, however, and the Bears trailed by two, 32-30, going into the second half.
At the beginning of the third quarter, the Bears began to ramp up their defensive pressure and went to the three-quarters court press they’ve used for large stretches of the season. This helped force the Highlanders into a couple of turnovers, but when UC Riverside got the ball up the court, it punished the Cal defense, which was left scrambling to recover. Sophomore guard Clemence Lefebvre had an especially strong quarter, with seven points — more than she averaged per game coming into the matchup. Lapses of concentration by Cal left UC Riverside’s players wide open for jumpers and layups all game, which helped them build a five-point lead early in the third period.
But Cal’s defensive focus improved, and the team prevented the Highlanders from getting open on the backdoor cuts they had used for easy buckets up until then. Shutting down easy baskets proved effective for the Bears, whose offense also started to play more efficiently, helping Cal to a 20-9 run to end the third quarter and giving the Bears a six-point lead going into the final frame.
“I wanted us to be less concerned about what they were doing and do us at a faster pace,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “We’re lucky we got that one run.”
The fourth quarter was a sluggish one for both teams, as neither the Bears nor the Highlanders managed to score very much at all. Cal scored only 12 points in the final quarter, but it proved to be enough to hold onto its lead.
“All in all, Riverside probably outplayed us today. They did them better than we did us,” Gottlieb said. “I think it’s a good lesson for our team that we have to find our own intensity level every single time we step on the floor and that all opponents are good.”