After a regular season that started better than expected and ended heartbreakingly poorly for the Cal women’s basketball team, the Bears’ run at the Pac-12 Tournament seems just right.
Cal’s first two games were a mix of an invigorating ending, an overtime win against Utah and a thrilling upset — the 10th-best team in the Pac-12 took out the nation’s No. 10 team, Arizona State.
But when the Bears played UCLA in the semifinals, it was like staring the season’s disappointments and its “almosts” in the face.
It was a fitting end.
Cal squandered a 14-point lead to suffer a six-point overtime loss that mirrored the progression of the season. The Bears were up 32-25 at halftime but ultimately squandered that lead in the second half. Meanwhile, during the season, Cal started 9-2 and went into Pac-12 play with one of the conference’s best records, only to fall apart, going 4-14 for the remainder of the regular season.
The end of that game was the end of the Bears’ season. It pushed them to 15-17 overall, clinching the first under .500 year of head coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s tenure.
More scarringly, the defeat pushed Cal to only 1-9 in games decided by 10 points or fewer in Pac-12 play, 2-10 if including the conference tournament. Winning even half of those games would have the young Bears set for at least the Women’s NIT. Even that, however, would’ve been a disappointing outcome, a worst-case scenario, after Cal’s first game against UCLA on Dec. 21 in what was technically a nonconference matchup.
The then-No. 21 Bears took down the then-No. 19 Bruins, 108-104, after two overtimes in one of the best games of the college basketball season. Cal freshman forward Kristine Anigwe put up a stellar 25 points to go along with 10 rebounds, while junior forward Courtney Range had 29 points and 12 boards.
The win pushed the Bears to 8-2 and was their third straight — they would go on to win their next game by 62 points to carry a 9-2 record into the beginning of the Pac-12 season. Though the win over UCLA was a promising one for Cal, it also could have served as a warning for what was to come in conference play.
Despite the game going into double overtime, only seven Bears saw the court and one of them — freshman MaAne Mosley — only played 10 minutes, while freshmen and sophomores played more than 80 percent of available minutes. Clearly, Cal was a team plagued by lack of depth and a glut of youth.
And that came back to bite the Bears. Both factors contributed to their close losses, as they simply didn’t have the experience or the energy to put teams away in the second half. Over the course of the season, Cal was outscored in second halves, even when including the win over Cal State Northridge, whom the Bears outscored by 42 points after the break.
Largely because of inexperience and the struggles to put teams away, Cal struggled its way to what was a disappointing season. But there are some silver linings.
Youth, one of the factors that may have most held the team back, is actually a positive when judging the Bears’ future outlook. They had no seniors this year so everyone will be back for the 2016-17 season to go along with some new recruits. And all the major contributors this season had games and stretches throughout the season that were immensely promising.
Anigwe, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, was a dominant force. She was Cal’s leading scorer, with 20.5 points per game, and its leading rebounder, with 9.3 boards per game. She flashed the potential to do even more as her game develops, as her ability to seal off defenders in the low post found her consistently open looks. Late in the season, the Bears mastered throwing lob passes to Anigwe that seemed to help the team solve the conundrum of what to do when opponents sent three defenders the young forward’s way.
The source of many of those passes was sophomore guard Gabby Green. Despite being a starter, Green’s impact as a scorer was rarely felt. She struggled to shoot, plain and simple, making less than 30 percent of her shots. Green still changed and improved the game for her team, however, in spite of what could’ve been a potentially crippling failure to find the basket.
She often served as the primary facilitator and ball handler, and her presence on the court was the Bears’ easiest way of breaking the full court press. Green’s impact as a defender was clear, as she used her size — she’s six foot two — to bully and often swallow up the smaller guards she was shadowing altogether. Perhaps the only Cal player who could rival Green as a defender was sophomore forward Mikayla Cowling.
Cowling shut down Oregon State’s Jamie Weisner when the two teams played each other Feb. 28th. Cowling held the Pac-12 Player of the Year to only 11 points, and managed to make up for a weak offensive game of her own. She, however, is not one to overlook on offense. She flashed an impressive ability to score in the clutch, most notably hitting game-tying and game-winning shots in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
Throughout the season, more impressively, Cowling was consistently the only Bear to score in the midrange. Even as the game of basketball moves away from the midrange jumper as a source of offense, it’s still important to at least occupy that space with a viable scoring option, and Cowling provided that for Cal. This, along with her propensity to finish acrobatic shots in transition, made her one of the Bears’ most valuable players and it showed, as Gottlieb played Cowling 37 minutes per game this year.
She was also one of two Cal players to play the full 50 minutes against UCLA early in the season, joined by freshman guard Asha Thomas. The undersized Thomas complemented Green in terms of running the offense for the Bears, and she excelled. Thomas quickly established herself as one of the leaders on team, and her vocal, fiery style of basketball often invigorated both the crowd and the team just as much as her no-look passes did in transition. Although she was often passive on offense, Thomas also showed an ability to change the game when she asserted herself, something she will surely be called on to do more of.
Despite this group of talented players, along with its second leading scorer, Range, Cal never got it together this season. Not until it was too late, at least.
Nothing that happens in the future will change that. But with so many promising pieces and a young core, the Bears may soon look back at this season as just a bump in the road.