Without Thomas, No. 23 Cal women’s basketball survives offensive struggle with Arizona, 53-51

Aditi Raghunath/File

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What began as a weekend of high expectations quickly became a second half of salvaging for the No. 23 Cal women’s basketball team (11-4). Thanks to a timely performance from senior guard Mikayla Cowling, the Bears escaped the desert and avoided a disaster of a weekend by grasping a 53-51 win over Arizona (4-11).

Playing for the first time this season without star junior guard Asha Thomas proved to be a trying, uphill task. Ruled out prior to tipoff with concussion-like symptoms after taking a hard fall in Cal’s 80-71 loss to No. 25 Arizona State, Thomas watched as the Bears struggled mightily in a defensive onslaught with the Wildcats.

Typically the focal point of Cal’s defense, the Bears needed every clutch moment from Cowling on the offensive end as the senior connected on a career-best five threes while leading the team with 19 points. Arizona’s early defensive pressure, led by freshman forward Sam Thomas and senior guard JaLea Bennett, forced the Bears to adapt quickly without their starting point guard.

Shooting just 27.6 percent from the field in the first half, Cal was put on upset alert as the Wildcats took a 26-21 lead heading into the break.

For all their offensive stagnation, the Bears’ defense played well throughout with senior forward Penina Davidson and junior forward Kristine Anigwe anchoring the paint. But a 12-1 run in the second quarter, led by Arizona freshman guard Sammy Fatkin, made it all too clear that Thomas’ defensive pressure and offensive poise were critical pieces missing from Cal’s rhythm.

The Bears missed 10 straight shots over a six-minute stretch in that same quarter until a Cowling jumper put an end to the drought with less than 30 seconds remaining in the half.

Starting in place of the injured Thomas was sophomore guard Jaelyn Brown, one of six Bears who played at least 20 minutes. Freshman guard Kianna Smith played all 40 minutes, a career first, and accounted for 10 of the team’s 17 assists. Sophomore guard Mo Mosley also pitched in a season-high 24 minutes of her own and collected three of Cal’s six steals.

Down by as much as 10 points midway through the third quarter, it was the duo of Cowling and Smith that found offense at just the right time. With Smith taking over primary ball handling duties, Cal’s rhythm came alive in the blink of an eye, rattling off a 15-2 run highlighted by three consecutive assists from the freshman point guard in the span of about a minute.

The exchange of runs resulted in a 1-point game heading into the fourth, but the Bears’ defense clamped down and forced six straight misses from the Wildcats, giving Cal a 9-point advantage after an Anigwe layup with 6:27 to go. It looked as if Arizona would fold after that, but sloppy play from Cal’s frontcourt gave the Wildcats a fighting chance.

Arizona held Cal’s patchy offense scoreless for the final 4:09 of play. With time winding down, the Wildcats’ defense gave itself a possession to pull off a shocker when Davidson coughed up the ball with 14 seconds remaining. The Wildcats were within 2. As time expired, Arizona put the ball in the hands of the freshman Fatkin, who missed a game-tying jumper and sealed Cal’s escape.

While the Bears will undoubtedly take the win, Thomas’ importance to the flow of the game was made crystal clear. With several rest days ahead and a return home to host Washington (6-9) and Washington State (8-8) looming, expect Cal to rebound nicely after a shaky weekend.

Josh Yuen is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].