No. 19 Cal women’s basketball falls to No. 17 Arizona State in Pac-12 opener

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Cal and Arizona State both came into Saturday’s women’s basketball matchup riding winning streaks of at least four games.

Something had to give.

And it did for the No. 19 Bears (9-3), whose 57-49 road loss in their Pac-12 opener was marred by a disappointing offensive outing against the No. 17 Sun Devils (10-3).

Arizona State has made its mark throughout the season with a stellar defense, giving up only 54.3 points per game coming into the conference opener. Early on, however, it looked as though the Sun Devils could just as easily be one of the nation’s premier offensive teams. They consistently made the right pass to find open players in the face of a 3-2 Cal zone, which helped them shoot 50 percent from the field in the first quarter. Arizona State also made an effort to get into its sets quickly after failed Bears offensive possessions, which crucially left Cal’s guards mismatched against the Sun Devils’ bigs. This was a recipe for disaster and was a big reason the Bears trailed, 18-10, by the end of the first quarter.

But the main reason the Sun Devils kept their lead, which grew to as much as 20 in the second quarter, was their vaunted defense, which may be the best Cal has faced all season. Arizona State knew the Bears would be looking for forward Kristine Anigwe when they had the ball, and the Sun Devils sold out to slow down the freshman star. They focused on making entry passes to Anigwe difficult and they had a help defender ready to meet the forward if Cal managed to get the ball to her. This made things difficult for Anigwe, who turned it over three times and scored only six points in the first half, after averaging more than 22 per game coming into this matchup.

Anigwe was nowhere near the only Bear to catch the turnover bug, as the Sun Devils’ full court press forced Cal out of its comfort zone and the ball into the hands of players less accustomed to handling the ball than guards Asha Thomas and Gabby Green. Arizona State’s fast hands and smart positioning helped lead to 10 Bears turnovers in the first quarter alone, and the young Cal team sometimes looked as though it didn’t know what to do when down by so many points, turning it over five more times before the first half ended.

A veteran Sun Devils team, which returns four starters from last season, excelled at turning these giveaways into buckets on the other end. They had 16 points off of turnovers in the first half alone which accounted for their lead, as they went into the break up, 35-19. They were led by guard Arnecia Hawkins and center Quinn Dornstauder, who combined for 17 points and 8-12 shooting in the first half.

Cal came out of halftime firing and looked as if it may have moved past its turnover woes, getting within nine points with 5:31 left in the third quarter. Anigwe, who was still the emphasis of the Arizona State defense, showed that her stellar play thus far this season hasn’t been a fluke, not just by converting in and over traffic, but by playing high-energy defense. Even when her constant activity got her into foul trouble — picking up her third with just less than five minutes left in the third period — head coach Lindsay Gottlieb could only afford to take Anigwe out for two minutes, as she was the only thing keeping the Bears in the game. She scored nine points in the third and ended the game with 22 points and 13 boards, her sixth double-double of the season.

Anigwe’s magic wasn’t enough to drag the Bears to a win, however, as their turnover troubles resurfaced and they continued to throw the ball away. Whenever Cal looked as though it was about to go on a run, another of its 26 giveaways would give the ball right back to Arizona State, which allowed the Sun Devils not only another chance to score but the opportunity to run precious seconds off the clock, which turned into another opponent for the Bears. This sunk Cal, which failed to take advantage of a nearly six-minute-long scoring drought by Arizona State to end the game. The Bears only scored six points during this stretch, as their turnovers and missed baskets brought them within eight before the final buzzer sounded, handing them a loss in their Pac-12 season opener.

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