Unbounded joy to unspeakable grief — the spectrum of emotions speaks for itself when it comes to March Madness.
The intense reality of the NCAA’s single-elimination tournament hit the No. 7 seed Cal women’s basketball team all at once Friday evening, when its season came to an abrupt end at the hands of No. 10 seed Virginia, 68-62.
As the final buzzer sounded, sealing the conclusion of her collegiate career, senior forward Penina Davidson fell to a squat with her head slumped toward the ground, capturing an image that fans of the tournament are all too familiar with. It’s hard enough for any player to be on the losing end of a hotly contested March Madness contest, but for Davidson and fellow senior Mikayla Cowling, this was the end of four years worth of blue and gold pride.
When the Bears take a step back and examine the trajectory of their season, they’ll hopefully look back with a smile at all they’ve accomplished. An undefeated regular season against unranked teams. A win on Senior Day against Stanford. The development of their starting point guard for the future.
That said, it’ll still take time to shake off the looming question of “What if?” that plagued the Bears against former coach Joanne Boyle’s talented group of Cavaliers. Specifically, what if star junior forward Kristine Anigwe hadn’t been on the sidelines when 6’9” Virginia center Felicia Aiyeotan took over in the second half? What if the medical staff had cleared Cal’s leading scorer and rebounder to at least give it a go for the team’s biggest game of the season?
But even without Anigwe, who was ruled out unexpectedly just a couple of hours before tipoff, the Bears played inspired basketball that ultimately had them in front of the Cavaliers for the majority of the first half.
With sophomore center CJ West starting in place of Anigwe and freshman guard Kianna Smith assuming her seasonlong role of junior Asha Thomas’ backcourt mate, Cal underclassmen thrived on the national stage.
Smith began the evening red hot, igniting the Bears’ offense on 4 for 4 shooting, and putting her stamp on Cal’s offensive flow to the tune of eight assists. She also led all scorers with a career-high 20 points, while West pitched in 14 points and six rebounds in just her second start of the season.
But Thomas was the only other Bear to reach double-digit points on the evening with 17 of her own, while the Cavaliers saw five of their eight players who saw the court record at least 10 points. Virginia also took care of the basketball at a much more efficient rate than the Bears, finishing with just six turnovers compared to Cal’s 15.
It was Aiyeotan who benefited the most from Anigwe’s missing presence in the post, as the sophomore accounted for 16 points and six rebounds on an efficient 8 for 11 showing from the field. With Cal leading 31-30 at the half, Aiyeotan led a defensive effort in the second half against the Smith-led Cal offense. The Bears scored just 6 points in the third quarter, during which the Cavaliers vaulted back in front and never relinquished the lead in a high-scoring final quarter.
Senior guard Aliyah Huland El made things clear that she wanted her Virginia career to last another day, pairing with sophomore guard Dominique Toussaint to hit five timely threes. With Smith and Thomas vying to bring Cal back from an early fourth-quarter deficit, it was Toussaint who nailed the go-ahead three with 1:13 remaining, giving Virginia the lead for good.
Sophomore guard Jocelyn Willoughby snuffed out the Bears’ last-gasp effort, calmly nailing all six of her free throws in the final 16 seconds. When Cowling’s last shot clanked off the rim, March Madness’ two extremes of emotions instantly came alive.
This isn’t the first time a Cal team has faced a late setback the day of a tournament game. Two years ago, the Cal men’s basketball team — a team with Sweet 16 aspirations — drew a No. 4 seed against No. 13 Hawaii for its first round matchup. But after pregame warmups, star guard Jabari Bird was scratched because of back spasms, a key factor in the Warriors’ 77-66 upset over the Bears.
As for the women, their contest was tightly contested from start to finish, and it featured flashes of stardom from two of next year’s core pieces. In their final game with the Bears, Davidson recorded 10 rebounds and blocked three shots while Cowling put up a diverse line of seven points, five boards and two assists. Although the leadership of Cowling and Davidson will be sorely missed, the Bears will have Anigwe and Thomas at the helm for their senior season, leaving little doubt that Cal will be back to the Big Dance in 12 months time.