Cal women’s basketball wild ride ends in NCAA Tournament

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The ascent was fast and steady, and the fall equally precipitous. The ride was characterized by small rises and falls, spins and loops. Like every good roller coaster, the Cal women’s basketball team’s 2016-17 season was a wild ride filled with unexpected twists and turns — some delightfully thrilling, others dangerously deflating.

The Bears started the season with a perfect 13-0 record, winning all of their preseason games along with their first Pac-12 contest. This was a steady buildup, with wins piling up on each other and raising the team to a seemingly new level. But that was their peak, and the fall from there was scarily steep. Cal lost seven of its next nine games, only to appear to find its footing again with a win against a nationally-ranked UCLA team.

That game against the Bruins was possibly their best of the season, a true emblem of the level of play that this Bears team could reach. While Cal’s defense has been one of their biggest flaws throughout the season, it held UCLA to just six first-quarter points that game, a showing that was aided by the Bears’ outstanding offensive productivity.

But if the win against the Bruins provided a bump in morale, it didn’t last long. From then on, Cal exchanged wins and losses, with the Bears never quite able to find the unstoppable winning ways that characterized the first half of their season.

Sophomore Kristine Anigwe, as expected, solidified herself throughout the season as Cal’s go-to woman offensively. She averaged 21 points and 9.3 rebounds per game along with leading her team in field goal percentage at 56.6 percent. But her game was sometimes hindered by poor shot choices and turnovers, and the pressure of being the Bears’ most relied upon player clearly got to her on occasion.

Three more players on the team — Asha Thomas, Courtney Range and Mikayla Cowling — also contributed heavily on offense throughout the season, all averaging at least eight points per game. Thomas, Range and Cowling were streaky offensively, though, hindering Cal’s ability to produce in every game.

While the Bears fell multiple times to teams that they shouldn’t have in the regular season, they had an admirable post season nonetheless. The Bears advanced out of the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, solidly beating USC before falling to Oregon State — who advanced to the tournament finals — in the second round.

Though few expected it, the Bears were given a berth into the NCAA tournament and, proving that they had the skill to be there, narrowly beat LSU to advance out of the round of 64. Going up against Baylor, however, showed what many had thought all season — that while Cal was undoubtedly a skilled team, it lacked the prowess to contend with the top-tier teams in the nation.

“I’m really proud of our team,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “I think it was a huge step for us to get here, and not just to prove to people that we belonged in the tournament, but more taking a look forward, I think this is a group that can do some special things, and we needed this experience.”

The only players that the Bears will be losing after this season is Range, who was one of Cal’s best post players throughout her years on the team, and fellow senior KC Waters. Thus, Gottlieb has time to mold this young group into a streamlined and efficient squad, with strong players at every position. Freshmen Mi’Cole Cayton and Jaelyn Brown stood out this season as two up-and-coming talents, steadily gaining traction as the season progressed and proving that they will be vital players next season.

This year, women’s basketball fans didn’t have to travel very far to experience the thrills of a roller coaster ride. With the streaky nature of the Bears’ season, fans were left on their toes, wondering whether a win or a loss was around the corner. While they were hit with midseason woes, though, Cal’s participation in the NCAA tournament was a true final push upwards.

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