Season preview: All eyes on deep postseason run for Cal women’s basketball

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The countdown is on, and the Cal women’s basketball team is not ready to let its opponents be saved by the bell.

The Bears have been waiting for the right time since a 2013 Final Four appearance, and this year might be the chance to land a knockout punch. With a seasoned group of seniors, it’s now or never.

Under head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, the Bears have missed the NCAA tournament only once. That season was in 2016, the first year for now-senior forward Kristine Anigwe. Cal has since improved every year under its star in the middle, who has led the Bears in both scoring and rebounding in all three years she’s worn the blue and gold.

Last season, the Bears finished with a 21-11 overall record and an 11-7 Pac-12 record while only losing three games at home. The Bears were unsuccessful in competing in new environments, however, with just an 8-6 road record to their name.

The story of the season, unfortunately, was Cal’s inability to go head-to-head against elite competition, as they lost all but one matchup against ranked teams. That one win came on Senior Day against rival Stanford.

Last season, Cal averaged a respectable 69.0 points per game while surrendering 65.9 per contest on the flip side. The red lights were beeping whenever Cal had trouble getting the ball into the basket, as seven of the team’s 11 total losses came when the Bears scored less than 55 points.

Gottlieb’s players converted shots at a 45.4 percent clip in the game, but they shot just 33.9 percent from behind the arc. The defense, however, was on point, keeping the opposition under 40 percent from the field.

One glaring problem in Cal’s offensive game, however, came from the charity stripe. The Bears converted just 68.8 percent of their free throws, with Anigwe shooting a team-low 58.3 percent among the Bears with more than 10 trips to the foul line last season.

Anigwe was also the Cal player who was sent to the line most often, as teams found her to be their kryptonite whenever she received an entry pass in the post. This offseason, free throws should have been a primary aspect of improvement for the Bears to be able to close out games down the stretch throughout the season.

Gottlieb chose to play with a definite starting five last season, but two former starters have graduated: guard Mikayla Cowling and forward Penina Davidson.

Cowling’s spot, while being missed, will be easier to fill with the additions of five-star recruit forward Mckenzie Forbes and graduate transfer guard Receé Caldwell as well as a healthy Mi’Cole Cayton, who is returning from injury. The duo of Forbes and Caldwell will also provide much-needed help behind the arc, as both players shine as elite three-point shooters in their respective games.

Caldwell will also have lots of help in playmaking from senior guard Asha Thomas and sophomore Kianna Smith, the latter of whom led the team in assists last year.

Davidson’s loss, however, minimizes the team’s frontcourt rotation. Extended minutes for Anigwe are on the horizon, and she needs to stay away from foul trouble if the Bears are going to compete with the best the Pac-12 has to offer.

Gottlieb will likely run a fast, small-ball offense with four shooters next to Anigwe, which is bound to either create space for Anigwe in the post or provide open shots for Cal’s perimeter threats, accentuated by Thomas, Caldwell and Forbes.

The players should have plenty of time to adjust to their new roles, with the aim of peaking in February and March. If Gottlieb can manage the frontcourt and space out the playing time of her backcourt, Cal can create the spirit of 2013 all over again for a deep run in March.

Can Sariöz covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @can_sarioz.