No. 1 UConn in town as Cal women’s basketball set for battle of unbeatens

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Goliath is finally here — in Berkeley, on our doorstep. Tomorrow, for the first time in the history of Cal women’s basketball, the Bears will play host to the No. 1 team in the nation.

The Huskies are not just any No. 1 team, though. UConn, led by legendary head coach Geno Auriemma, has remained at the top of NCAA women’s basketball for nearly 30 years. In 2016, UConn won its fourth consecutive national championship, and the last time it lost a regular season game was in 2014, before any of the current Huskies joined the team.

This year’s UConn squad is loaded as usual. Despite starting the season ranked No. 2 behind Notre Dame, last season’s national champion, UConn earned back its top seed after a hard-fought victory over the Fighting Irish three weeks ago.

The current Huskies don’t have a Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore or Breanna Stewart — players who carried them to undefeated seasons — but they boast an elite starting five that features both veteran leadership and a rising star.

  1. Katie Lou Samuelson

Samuelson, a 6’3” senior guard/forward, leads the team with 20.1 points per game and is capable of scoring at all three levels. She has a textbook shooting stroke, owning a 42 percent career mark from 3-point range. Down low, Samuelson employs a signature power dribble on the baseline to simultaneously gain her balance and create space with her body, often leading to easy layups. Her offensive arsenal also includes a step-back, mid-range jumper that she used multiple times against Notre Dame.

via Gfycat

  1. Napheesa Collier

Collier is a 6’2” senior forward who anchors the paint for the Huskies. Like Samuelson, she has the ability to handle the ball, sometimes going coast to coast, but Collier does the majority of her damage in the post. Collier is also effective at getting in position on the offensive glass, leading the team with 33 offensive rebounds, and boasts a fallaway putback shot that is tough to stop.

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  1. Christyn Williams

Williams, a 5’11” freshman shooting guard, is the future for the Huskies. She was the nation’s top recruit last year, and she demonstrated why with a 28-point showing at Notre Dame — with 16 coming in the first quarter. A smooth southpaw, Williams can create shots for herself, as she’s able to blow by defenders and also pull up from 15 feet. Her greatest strength though, might be her speed, as Williams has a great first step and is dangerous in transition.

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  1. Crystal Dangerfield

Dangerfield is a 5’5” junior point guard who runs the offense for UConn. She has the ability to score and make plays for others, averaging 13.7 points and leading the team in assists, with 5.3 per game. Dangerfield can stretch the floor as well, shooting 40 percent from distance.

  1. Megan Walker

Walker, a 6’1” sophomore guard/forward, is also a former No. 1 recruit. After a mediocre rookie season, Walker has made a leap in her second year, now averaging double-digit scoring. She missed two games this season with an illness, but has played well as a secondary scoring option.

Each member of the starting five for the Huskies logs more than 30 minutes a game, as Auriemma doesn’t go deep into his bench. Against Notre Dame, only six players saw action; the continuity has helped with UConn’s chemistry.

The chemistry is particularly evident in the half court, where UConn’s set plays are crisp and effective. The Huskies love to space the floor and utilize back screens for easy layups. Below is a more complex play, as a screen-the-screener action creates a two-on-one situation for Dangerfield and Collier.

via Gfycat

While an undefeated Goliath is set to make its way into Haas Pavilion on Saturday, Cal is no mere David. The Bears themselves boast a perfect 9-0 record, led by senior superstar Kristine Anigwe, who ranks in the top five in the nation in both points and rebounds. Anigwe has been the definition of consistency, posting a double-double in every game this season.

The Bears also possess a trio of guards who all have the ability to score in bunches and create for others. Graduate transfer Receé Caldwell, senior Asha Thomas and sophomore Kianna Smith have combined for six 15-point games this season and team up to dish out more than two-thirds of Cal’s assists.

And just like any final boss in a video game, UConn has its weaknesses that, if attacked correctly, will give Cal a chance at victory.

On offense, the answer will start with Anigwe. At 6’4”, she has the advantage over both Samuelson and Collier in terms of size and strength, and she will need to lead the scoring charge to keep the game close. In last season’s blowout loss to UConn, Anigwe scored 14 points, but no other Bear had more than 8. This year, Anigwe is averaging 23.6 points per contest, and she will need at least that many for the Bears to have a chance.

The other advantage the Bears own is in quickness, as Cal starts three speedy guards to UConn’s two. In turn, one guard for the Bears will be defended by a six-footer, which creates a possible mismatch on which the Bears must capitalize.

Defensively, the Bears can only pick their poison, but they can play percentages to give themselves the best chance. Collier shoots just 64 percent from the foul line and 18 percent from 3, so baiting her into long distance shots and fouling her close to the basket will limit the damage.

Ultimately, Cal will need to play a near-perfect game to win, and even then, UConn will need to falter. But the opportunity to knock off the No. 1 team in the nation has arrived, and the Bears have the firepower they need to successfully shoot their shot. And with tomorrow being Cal’s first home game against a No. 1 team, why not make it the first win against one, too?

Tim Sun covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].