Cal women’s basketball faces LSU in first round of NCAA tournament

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If, at the end of February, you had asked any fan if they thought the Cal women’s basketball team had a chance of making the NCAA tournament, they would have balked at the question. Sporting a 6-12 Pac-12 record and an 18-12 overall record at the close of the regular season, the Bears were seemingly ill-equipped to make it to the big dance. But then March 13 came along, and not only had Cal made it into the tournament, but it had earned itself a prized middle-of-the-pack 9th seed, not just squeaking in at 12th or 13th. The inclusion of the Bears came as a surprise to many, but such is the madness of March.

Now Cal is tasked with hard mission of proving to those initial doubters that it belongs, and it all starts Saturday evening when the Bears will go head-to-head with 8th-seeded LSU (20-11) in the round of 64.

The Lady Tigers finished 7th in the SEC, the conference that is sending the most teams to the tournament with eight total. It should be understood, then, that LSU’s record and conference standing don’t do full justice to its overall skill, since it faced some of the toughest competition in the nation during the regular season.

LSU is lead by a triumvirate of star players, all of whom boast field goal percentages over 41 percent and rack up at least five rebounds game. The most dynamic duo comes in the form of junior guard Raigyne Moncrief, who averages 16 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and sophomore guard Chloe Jackson, averaging 13.2 points per game on a 32 percent three-point field goal percentage.

Cal’s paramount defensive advantage against these two crafty guards is size — Jackson stands at 5-foot-9-inches, with Moncrief only pushing that measurement by an inch. Most of the Bears’ guard defenders, chiefly Mikayla Cowling and Mi’Cole Cayton, stand taller. The Bears’ size advantage, if they can stay on their toes, could prove invaluable when shutting down LSU’s stars.

The Bears outmatch the Lady Tigers in the paint as well. Six-foot-four-inch sophomore star Kristine Anigwe, who was recently named to the Pac-12 All Tournament Team after averaging 30 points per game, is far more skilled than any of LSU’s post players. Her penchant for turnovers and poor shot choices, though, could be a real hindrance to a Cal victory if she doesn’t play a smart game.

Turnovers, for the whole team, have been the Bears’ achilles heel. They are undoubtedly the reason for numerous close losses throughout the regular season. The Lady Tigers this year are averaging 14.4 turnovers per game, while their opponents have amassed 20.5 per game. LSU’s defense has no small part to play in creating this favorable disparity. The quick hands and feet of nearly every Lady Tiger have also led to LSU’s stealing supremacy, as they lead the SEC with 12.1 steals per game. The mix of Cal’s high turnover rate and LSU’s high stealing rate could prove to be a poisonous combination for the Bears.

Cal’s prospects in this game are good, but if they fall victim to their own carelessness, a tough final loss could be in their future. At this point, it’s anyone’s game — after all, it’s March Madness and nothing can be known for sure.

Sophie Goethals is the assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected]