It’s not going to be much of a happy New Year’s Eve for Cal women’s basketball. Harvard came to Haas Pavilion on Sunday, and the Crimson outlasted the No. 14 Bears to win a hard-fought battle, 85-79.
Both teams came out with game plans as expected — Cal tried to use its size advantage to get interior shots, and Harvard came out firing from 3-point range, taking nine of its first 10 field goal attempts from downtown.
The first quarter became a shootout, and Harvard outscored the Bears, 30-22, behind six threes. The Crimson’s Madeline Raster commenced the onslaught with two to start the game, and Katie Benzan added three more before the end of the quarter, marking the sharpshooter’s ninth straight game with three or more made 3-pointers.
Cal’s game plan, conversely, was not so successful. The Bears turned it over trying to feed Kristine Anigwe on the first possession and couldn’t get her going at all in the first quarter, as she scored just 2 points — an anomaly for Cal’s leading scorer.
But a bright spot for the Bears was the play of their young guards. Sophomore Kianna Smith scored 7 of Cal’s first 9 points to keep the team close, and freshman McKenzie Forbes showed off the skills that made her such a highly touted recruit. The 6’0” guard scored 11 points in the first, including 3-4 from downtown, displaying her smooth shooting stroke and strength on drives.
“I just try to play my role,” Forbes said. “If the shots are open, then I try to knock them down.”
In the early second quarter, Harvard’s offense continued to hum, as the Crimson shot 63 percent from the field in the first half. With Cal’s attention turned to the 3-point line, Harvard took advantage of the spacing with back cuts and low-post isolations. Still unable to find rhythm offensively, the Bears let Harvard extend its lead to 15 midway through the second quarter.
A methodical comeback from the Bears, however, helped them end the half with a 16-4 run. Cal went back to its gameplan and force-fed Anigwe to get her 9 points by the break, and a couple of timely fast-break layups cut the lead to 3 by halftime.
The third quarter was a tale of two runs. The Bears briefly took the lead, but a 13-2 run by the Crimson but them back up 9. Then, a 7-0 run from Cal cut the lead to 2, at 60-58, heading into the fourth.
That third quarter revealed that Cal’s talent has the potential to take the Bears deep into March, but it also showed that their porous defense could cut that tournament run short. In their closing run, the Bears demonstrated their ability to generate turnovers, score in transition and hit 3-pointers that will be able to keep them in any game. But in Harvard’s run, the Cal defense displayed a borderline nonchalance that allowed the Crimson to pick it apart.
In the fourth, the Bears still couldn’t find any type of flow on offense, and their bench play kept them in the game. Forbes picked up where she left off in the first, with 11 second-half points for a career-high 22 in just 24 minutes, and Cal’s C.J. West provided good minutes, scoring 8 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
“Over the years, I’ve learned all the different looks we’re looking for in all of our sets,” West said. “If (Anigwe is) doubled, I know where I can go to get open.”
Down the stretch, the Bears found ways to score, but simply gave up too many solid looks to the Crimson, and Harvard took advantage. A blown coverage allowed a wide-open layup by Benzan, and poor defense on an out-of-bounds play gave Raster an open, short-corner jumper.
The Bears trailed by just 1 with 44 seconds to go, and Harvard closed Cal out by going 6-6 from the line to seal an upset victory.
“Harvard outplayed us in these 40 minutes,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “They shot the heck out of the ball. … We made them feel very comfortable in our gym.”
Still, the breakout game from Forbes is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise underwhelming performance for the Bears. The freshman had yet to score double digits this season, so her ability to knock down open shots is a welcome sight and one Cal will need in order to be successful in March.
“The only recourse is to force this to make us better,” Gottlieb said. “We have to do things that make us say, ‘We were better because of that Harvard loss.’ ”