Cal women’s basketball in search of victory in Battle of Bay

Number 31 of Berkeley's Women's Basketball is mid air about to shoot into the basket as a player from the opponent's team raises both her arms to block the ball from scoring.
Lorenzo Dela Cruz /File

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Losing a battle does not mean you’ve lost the war. Cal women’s basketball has been struggling to win the battle on the court week in and week out for some time now, but the Bears are still eyeing victory as the final stretch inches closer.

The Battle of the Bay is around the corner, and this is one battle Cal (13-6, 4-4) cannot bear to lose. The Cardinal will visit Haas Pavilion on Thursday for round one of the home-and-home before the Bears head down to Palo Alto on Saturday.

The Bears have had a roller coaster of a season, with ups as high as Mount Everest and lows as deep as the Mariana Trench. Just last weekend, Cal saw its lowest and highest 3-point percentages in back-to-back games. The Bears converted only 5 of 19 shots from behind the arc for a disappointing 26.3 percent in a loss to then-No. 21 Utah, then bounced right back up for an unbelievable 11 of 14 and 78.6 percent from 3-point range as they set Colorado on fire.

As impressive and promising as the performance against the Buffs was, Cal had trouble enforcing its strategies against stiff competition. No. 8 Stanford (17-2, 7-1) will be one of the toughest opponents the Bears face this season, as the Cardinal have recorded wins against top programs such as No. 1 Baylor and No. 21 Arizona State.

Stanford lost its last game against the red-hot Utah Utes on the road and will come into the home-and-home matchup against California with one, and only one, thing in mind — to win.

One of the keys of the game will be rebounding, as both teams excel in that area. Cal and Stanford average almost the same number of rebounds per game with 40.5 and 40.6, respectively. The Bears allow 32.5 rebounds to its opponents, while the Cardinal have allowed 33.9 per game so far.

Cal will rely heavily on senior Kristine Anigwe, who leads the nation with 14.9 boards per game. The 6’4” center/forward has recorded a double-double every time she’s stepped on the court this season and is the seventh-highest scorer in the nation, at 22.4 points per game.

The key matchup of the game will see Anigwe go face to face against Stanford forward Alanna Smith. Smith is the 12th-highest-scoring player in the nation with 21.2 points per game, and she leads the Cardinal with 8.3 rebounds per game. Unlike Anigwe, however, Smith gets help on the boards from junior guard DiJonai Carrington, who averages 7.5 rebounds per game.

The assignment to stop Anigwe will be on Smith, and the battle between two 6’4” seniors will be the matchup to watch Thursday and Saturday. Whenever Anigwe struggles to find her shot, Cal has a hard time imposing its own rhythm.

Smith will have the tools to achieve strong defense, as she leads the conference with 2.6 blocked shots per game. Smith will also force Anigwe to spent a lot of energy on defense, as she is one of the best stretch bigs in the nation, currently leading the Pac-12 shooting 48 percent behind the arc.

The key for the Bears to earn their first win against a ranked opponent is hitting their shots early behind the arc in order to force Stanford to defend the 3-point line, in return giving Anigwe the space she needs down low.

The Cal guard trio of Asha Thomas, Receé Caldwell and Kianna Smith must take care of the ball and control the tempo. The Bears average 13.8 turnovers per game and the Cardinal force 14.9 per game, so keeping possessions alive will be a major factor in the outcomes of the doubleheader.

The Bears will also need to prove last game against Colorado was not a fluke and that they can actually hit big shots behind the arc; they will need to if they want any shot at upsetting their biggest rival.

Cal’s backcourt will also play a key role in keeping in check Stanford guards Carrington and Kiana Williams, who average 13.1 and 14.7 points per game, respectively. Even though the Cardinal force plenty of turnovers, they also turn the ball over quite a lot with 13.5 per game, so Thomas will need to use her quick hands to capitalize on that.

Cal won the most recent matchup in the oldest rivalry in women’s basketball last season on Senior Day and will be looking for a repeat. The Bears are entering a tough schedule, as they will play four top-10 matchups in two weeks. After two games against Stanford, Cal will host No. 4 Oregon and No. 9 Oregon State.

The Battle of the Bay starts Thursday at 8 p.m. in Haas Pavilion before it is carried over to Maples Pavilion as Stanford hosts Cal on Saturday at 4 p.m.

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