Cal women’s basketball hopes to build on hot start at Cal Classic

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The Cal women’s basketball team has had a bright start to the 2016-17 season. Four games and four wins is not a bad stat — not bad at all. The wins, however, have come against teams that cannot be considered elite by any standards. This Friday, the Bears will face off against USF, which could give Cal a bigger challenge, considering the Dons’ achievements in the 2015-16 season.

The Bears and the Dons will be competing in the first round of the Cal Classic that takes place Nov. 25 and Nov. 26. The tournament will also feature Western Carolina and Duquesne, and the winners of both matches will face each other in the finals.

Cal’s first three matches of the season were marked by slow offensive starts. Against Saint Mary’s, the Bears only scored nine in the first quarter. The Santa Clara matchup saw the Bears make their first basket after four minutes, and against UC Riverside, Cal was already down 10-1 in the opening three minutes. In the CSU Bakersfield game, on the other hand, the Bears took the initiative from tip-off, as the slow start syndrome did not affect them in the matchup. Whether the CSU Bakersfield game was an exception to the rule or not will be seen Friday.

The Dons are coming into this season after a very strong 2015-16. USF won the WCC Tournament as the sixth seed last season and made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 19 years. The Dons were led by forward Taylor Proctor, who averaged 18.4 points per game. Proctor was a senior, however, and her productivity is something that USF will miss against Cal. Rachel Howard, who was third on the scoring list last season, currently leads the team in scoring with 15.3 points per game.

The Dons have won three of their four games so far, but the one loss to Washington State was an absolute demolition. The Cougars feasted on USF, defeating it by a score of 73-35. Howard was the only player to score in double digits for the Dons, while none of the other 13 players who spent time on the court put up more than five on the scoresheet. USF shot a measly 24 percent from the field and allowed 46 points in the paint.

So far, Cal’s offensive unit has ticked together primarily in the second half, especially as forward Kristine Anigwe has found her rhythm. Anigwe currently leads the team in scoring, with 20.5 points per game, and her past three matches have yielded three double-doubles. She has been ably supported by guard Mikayla Cowling, who has been giving stellar performances on both ends of the court. Cowling is averaging 14.5 points per game, and her versatility on offense — as she can drive, as well as shoot well from beyond the arc helps take the pressure off Anigwe and Courtney Range, who thrive in scoring in from the post. Adding to that is the efficient play that the bench has provided, which makes Cal the favored team in the encounter.

“We like to move the ball around,” said head coach Lindsay Gottlieb of Cal’s offensive strategy. “I don’t think we’re a breakdown one-on-one team. You watch good basketball, like the Spurs or the Warriors, they give up a good shot for a great shot, they move the ball around. We like when we get assisted baskets, whoever to whoever. That’s what good basketball looks like.”

The Bears have shown some weaknesses recently, however, especially in perimeter defense. This was on full display when CSUB’s Aja Williams made nine from three-point land. This weakness, however, will probably not matter against the Dons who lack a true long-range specialist.

Cal will be the favorite to take the Cal Classic title, barring any upsets. The lack of quality opposition, combined with an improving team, should be enough for the Bears to go all the way.

Devang Prasad covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DevangPrasad.