Short of a miracle, the Cal women’s basketball team’s postseason hopes are essentially nonexistent. The team knows it, the prognosticators know it — it’s been weeks since anyone predicted the talented but reeling Bears would make it to the NCAA Tournament — and the coaches know it.
So when the Bears (12-15, 3-13 Pac-12) take on No. 7 Oregon State (24-3, 15-1) in both teams’ second game of the weekend, the best they can hope for is to play spoiler to the Beavers’ Pac-12 Championship goals.
Sunday’s game at Haas Pavilion will be the teams’ second meeting of the season, after Oregon State blew out Cal, 70-48, on Jan. 15. The Beavers’ win was the third in a 15-game win streak that is still going. Meanwhile, going into that matchup, the Bears were 10-5 and still looked ready to contend in a loaded Pac-12, before they completely fell off the map, sunk by a lack of depth and youth-driven inconsistency.
Now, in what will be its regular season finale, Cal must focus on forging and finalizing an identity to carry into next year, even when it would be easy to give up on the season — the Bears sit only one game ahead of last place in the conference and, at best, would finish ninth in the Pac-12.
“If we’re going to go down, it’s going to be because someone beat us, not because we gave anyone anything easy,” said head coach Lindsay Gottlieb after last week’s loss to Colorado. “We have to focus on what we do well and getting our kids locked in to do that at the highest level we can.”
The first step to capitalizing on their strengths will mean the Bears need to re-emphasize feeding the ball to freshman forward Kristine Anigwe. She’s been Cal’s best scorer all season long, and after a rough patch of games in the middle of Pac-12 play, has found her groove again — her season average is back to 20.3 points per game after dipping below the 20 mark for a couple of weeks.
Anigwe scored 16 points on 12 shots and corralled six rebounds in her first matchup with Oregon State. Her showing was solid and efficient, but the Bears will need to get her a lot more involved if they expect to have any chance against a team like the Beavers. This is especially true given Cal’s dearth of consistent scoring options aside from Anigwe — while Mikayla Cowling, Courtney Range and Asha Thomas have all contributed at points this season, they’re also prone to off games and are rarely all hot on the same night.
The paradox for the Bears, however, is that their opponents know that they look to Anigwe to get touches in the post on nearly every possession. Teams now know to double- or triple-team her as soon as she gets the ball, which disrupts the offense and has often led to turnovers. This would seem to indicate that Cal should look to other options, but even the increased defensive pressure isn’t enough to slow her down sometimes. Against the Buffaloes last Sunday, Anigwe scored 30 points, including 18 in the first quarter alone.
“(Anigwe) came out and set a tone,” Gottlieb said. “They were pressuring us and we talked about if they were going to pressure we wanted to go inside. I thought she did a really good job of that.”
Anigwe may not be able to dominate so quickly and thoroughly against Oregon State, however, as the Beavers have one of the conference’s best defensive bigs in Ruth Hamblin. She leads an Oregon State defense that gives up only 50.3 points per game, best in the Pac-12.
Even with a great Anigwe performance, things quickly got ugly against the Pac-12’s last place team, which beat Cal by 21.
But against one of the nation’s top 10 teams? A team that beats its opponents by an average of nearly 18 points?
The Bears better watch out or ugly may not be strong enough of a word for what happens in the last game of their regular season.