Nonconference wrap-up: Cal women’s basketball hopes to take next step

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2018 has been encouraging for Cal women’s basketball. The Bears ended last season with a respectable 21-11 record, reaching the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in seven years, but they had trouble breaking into the next level.

Last year, Cal flirted with the Associated Press Poll throughout the season due to the fact that it has won all their matches against unranked teams. They lost, however, to all the ranked teams except one. A first-round exit in the NCAA tournament with star center Kristine Anigwe sidelined forced them to look toward the future.

The Bears sit at the same spot as last year in the conclusion of the nonconference play, 9-2. The team and the Cal faithful, however, believe there is a brighter light at the end of the tunnel this year.

Wake-up Call

Waking up from a sweet dream is always tough, but the Bears had a wake-up call to end the nonconference play.

Cal, with all its ups and downs, always seemed to find a way to win, which earned them a ranking as high as No. 13 in the AP Poll. After seven weeks and nine games, the Bears were in perfect position to host the No. 1 team in the nation. The glorious UConn was in town in the battle of unbeatens.

After a hard-fought loss to the Huskies and a comeback attempt that came up short at the end, Cal and the record-setting 10,818 fans filling Haas Pavilion left the game not with the bitter taste of a loss, but with the hope that the best is yet to come. The AP Poll did not dock them much for the loss either, as they only dropped one spot to No. 14.

Right before the Pac-12 play, however, the smart kids from the East Coast provided a harsh awakening. Trailing by as many as 15 points, the Bears chased the Harvard Crimson and took a hard grip of the game with a five-point lead with 7:33 left in the fourth quarter.

Despite entering the last 57 seconds of action with a one-point lead, Cal couldn’t stop Harvard from pulling the W away and handing the Bears their second straight loss to end the year.

The only silver lining from the upset was McKenzie Forbes. The freshman had 22 points off of 6/8 3-point shooting in 23 minutes off the bench. Her performance against Harvard marked her career high in points as well as being the first game she reached double-digit points and multiple made shots behind the arc. After struggling to find her shot early in the season, that game might be the birth of the impact everyone expected when she committed.

Anigwe or Nothing

Kristine Anigwe, a three-time All-Pac-12 First Teamer, put on a show throughout the first half of the 2018-19 season, and the show must go on if the Bears want a deep run in 2019.

Anigwe started the year with a heroic 37 point performance against Houston, with 21 of her points coming in the third quarter alone. She followed it with a monster performance against Penn State with 24 points and 22 rebounds. Unsurprisingly, she became the first espnW Player of the Week of the new season.

Anigwe has recorded a double-double in each of the 11 matches of the nonconference play, leading the team in points, rebounds and blocks, each by a hefty margin. She ranks 14th on the national scoring sheet at 21.3 points per game and her stellar 13.7 rebounds per game is good for second in the country.

The two losses Cal has come across were Anigwe’s two worst performances in the year. Coincidence? I think not.

The Huskies did a great job keeping Anigwe in check and holding her to a season-low 10 points on five of 16 shooting, while also not sending her to the foul line, which she sees 7.5 times on average.

UConn is the premier women’s basketball program in the nation, so it’s unfair to hold one game against Anigwe and the Bears, but the upset defeat against Harvard puts the situation even more clearly.

For a team that is backcourt heavy, the Bears need Anigwe to stay effective as the focal point of the offense night in and night out for the team to reach its highest potential.

Offense wins games, defense wins championships

At the first look, Cal looks more of an offensive power rather than defensive.

With frontcourt players that can run and stretch the floor in Anigwe and Jaelyn Brown, the Bears can give opposing bigs a lot of problems. With C.J. West and Alaysia Styles coming off the bench as spark plugs with important rebounding skills, Cal has a slim but versatile frontcourt.

In the backcourt-heavy rotation that features Asha Thomas’s speed, Receé Caldwell’s vision and Kianna Smith’s scoring, head coach Lindsay Gottlieb has a guard trio that can work efficiently together at her disposal.

When factoring in Forbes’ bench shooting, even though the Bears haven’t been as efficient as they want to be behind the arc yet, Cal has the tools to be lethal on offense. The wheels haven’t been turning smoothly so far with the Bears as they have shot just 31.8% from three, which is lower than last year’s 33.9%.

Cal sits at 73rd in the nation with 73.0 points per game and is only 150th in scoring defense with 63.1 points allowed per contest.

The Bears have shown that they can put up the points when needed, but they also displayed that they cannot outrun their opponents with volume scoring. They need to control the pace and find the offense-defense balance to consistently win games.

There are only four games in which Cal has allowed over 70 points this season. The Bears lost two of them and won the other two with one and three-point margins, with the latter coming in overtime. In the two games they lost, they allowed UConn and Harvard to shoot 46.2% and 54.2% behind the arc, becoming the two teams Cal allowed to convert more than 35% of its three-pointers.

The guard trio of Cal needs to control the pace in order to make sure the scoreboard shows the desired outcome at the end of every 40 minutes.

The Bears like second halves

Cal averages 41.4 second-half points per game while only scoring 31.6 per first halves. What Gottlieb says in halftimes we may never know, but it is clear that it is working.

The more shocking stat is that the Bears outperform their opponents in the third quarter alone with an average 5.5 point margin. They lost the third quarter to only St. Mary’s and UConn, against whom they outscored in the fourth.

Considering when the halftime buzzer beats, Cal was behind in five and tied in two of the 11 nonconference games, the importance of the adjustments Gottlieb makes are highlighted even further.

Now the goal for the Bears will be to make the necessary adjustments with the warning they got at the end of 2018, to bolt out of the gates and start the second half of the season in the aim to make it to the next level.

Can Sariöz is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @can_sarioz.