Record-setting attendance as Cal women’s basketball loses tough battle to No. 1 UConn

Lorenzo Dela Cruz/Staff

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Billed as one of Cal women’s basketball’s biggest-ever regular-season games, the Saturday afternoon matchup against No. 1 UConn didn’t disappoint. Cal got out to a hot start, but UConn pulled away, and despite a furious late-game comeback, Cal ultimately fell, 76-66.

It had been penciled — or rather highlighted in permanent marker — on the calendar for weeks, if not months. As expected, Haas Pavilion was packed, with more than 10,000 fans bringing the energy from before the opening tip. The game even featured halftime entertainment from the renowned unicycling, bowl-flipping Red Panda acrobat, who has performed at NBA venues across the nation.

Despite the magnitude of the game, the Bears showed no signs of nerves in the early going. Graduate transfer Receé Caldwell and senior Asha Thomas brought their veteran poise and came out of the gates firing. The two pulled the trigger from beyond the arc with no hesitation, combining to score Cal’s first 15 points on five 3-pointers to give the Bears a 15-9 lead.

“I would say it’s just like me shooting in the gym by myself,” Thomas said, after scoring a game-high 22 points, of her big shots. “Yes, we’re playing UConn … but I just have to knock down shots. I have to come alive for my team.”

And come alive she did. After a steal and transition layup followed by another near-steal on a tipped pass that went out of bounds, Thomas demonstrated her passion with an animated grimace, which elicited even more noise from the crowd.

Halfway through the first quarter, though, UConn started to get going. Individual talent took over for the Huskies, as senior Katie Lou Samuelson hit a couple jumpers and freshman phenom Christyn Williams showed off her shot-creation ability with a quick drive and then a spot-up 3-pointer.

Veterans Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield joined the fray, too, adding eight first-half points each as the Huskies displayed the balanced attack that makes them so dangerous.

After their hot start, the Bears began to cool down. Anigwe was a nonfactor in the first half, scoring just 2 points on one for eight shooting. Still, Cal found a way to get stops and keep the game close, trailing by just 6 at halftime, 38-32.

At the start of the second half, UConn began to pull away, scoring 6 quick points to extend its lead to 10. After five minutes of back-and-forth scoring, the Huskies rattled off a few more baskets to finish the quarter up by 15.

UConn seemingly couldn’t miss in the third quarter, going 10 for 14 as a team. Samuelson torched the Cal defense, as she ran off screens for midrange jumpers and made it look easy, scoring 6 of her team-high 20 points in the third.

Cal made the adjustment to feed Anigwe in the second half, and she scored 8 third-quarter points to keep her double-double streak alive — she now has 10 in 10 games this season. But the Bears scored just 14 points in the period, and didn’t hit a 3.

The deficit hovered around 15 for much of the final quarter, but the Bears made UConn earn the victory down the stretch. Down 13 with just over two minutes to go, the Bears scored 7 points in the next minute to cut the lead to 6. The crowd was on its feet, but Thomas missed a 3-pointer that could have cut the lead to 3, and Dangerfield hit four free throws to seal the victory.

“I think we made UConn have to beat us,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “I loved the fight of our team, the ability to come back when we were down.”

In the end, the Bears put themselves in a position to succeed, but poor shooting cost them the game. Cal won the turnover battle and secured nine more offensive rebounds to create 14 more field goal attempts, but the team shot just 38 percent.

And the Huskies demonstrated what makes them the top team in the country. Four of their five starters played the whole game, and all five put up double-digit scoring, shooting 57 percent from the field. Their interior defense was stifling, holding Anigwe to a season-low 10 points.

But even with the loss, the contest shows where the Bears stand heading into conference play, where four other currently ranked teams await.

“I think it’s a confidence-builder to say that we didn’t play our perfect game,” Gottlieb said. “I think we only raise our expectations from here of what we want the rest of the season to be.”

Gottlieb also took today’s game as an opportunity to showcase Cal’s talent and garner sustained support for her team. After the game, she pointed out that “the young women in white are pretty good, too” and encouraged the 10,818 people in attendance — a Cal women’s record — to continue to come out as the Bears look to capture a conference championship.

“People ask, ‘Is UConn good for the game?’ I saw 10,000 people — most of them were in gold,” Gottlieb said. “And I think now they’ll come back … so I think this week has been significant for all of that.”

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