Cal women’s basketball tops Arizona schools with heroic comebacks

A basketball player has the ball in her hand and tries to get around a player from the opponent team who is attempting to block her.
Brian Bi /Staff

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Haas Pavilion has been a place of celebration and defeat, of hope and disappointment, for the Cal women’s basketball team this season. And in their final two home games, the Bears went through all those emotions and more, ultimately finishing with two incredible wins over then-No. 17 Arizona State and Arizona.

The story of the weekend was the play of both newcomers and seniors, and in the middle of it all was graduate transfer Receé Caldwell. In her first and final season for the Bears, Caldwell willed the team to victory in both contests, winning Pac-12 Player of Week honors for her 44-point weekend.

Against Arizona State, Caldwell hit timely shots when it mattered to keep the Bears close and hold off the Sun Devils at the end.

Friday’s game started off in typical Arizona State fashion, with balanced scoring and stifling defense from the visitors. The Sun Devils built up a 12-point first-half lead as eight different players got on the board, and their defense held Cal to just 36.7 percent shooting.

On the defensive end, Arizona State got into Kristine Anigwe and forced her into tough shots. The senior managed 8 first-half points, but on just 4-13 from the field.

And despite a poor first half, the Bears remained within striking distance behind veteran play from Caldwell. She scored 10 first-half points, capped off by a buzzer-beating 3-pointer off the glass to cut the deficit to 7.

But the third quarter was the difference. The Bears came out firing, scoring 10 points in the first four minutes as an Asha Thomas 3-pointer tied the game at 35 and brought the Haas Pavilion crowd to its feet.

That third quarter was all Thomas. During the 13-2 run that turned the tide in favor of Cal, Thomas scored or assisted on every Cal point, including a sequence of a three, a rebound and a perfect pass to Jaelyn Brown on the fast break. Thomas scored 14 of her 18 points in the second half, including the final free throws to ice the game at 69-60.

“This is just a signature win that is so meaningful to me as a coach because we had such a tough time coming back from that trip (to Los Angeles),” said head coach Lindsay Gottlieb.

And after giving up more than 25 points to an opposing player in four straight games, the Cal defense held firm to secure the victory. Arizona State’s leading scorer Kianna Ibis, who averages 14 points per game and scored 26 against Cal in January, went 1-11 from the field, scoring her first basket with less than a minute left in the game.

On Sunday against Arizona, the Bears came back again for the victory, and this time it was the newcomers who led the charge.

The story began with seven minutes left in the third quarter and the Bears down by 20, as just 21.4 percent first-half shooting and scoring only 4 points in the second quarter put Cal against the ropes.

Once again, Caldwell came to the rescue, scoring 13 of Cal’s 20 in the third quarter, highlighted by 8 points in 2 ½ minutes, with each basket raising the crowd’s cheers to another level.

The Bears went into the final quarter trailing by 11, but there was a feeling that Cal would pull it out. The fans were loud, Caldwell was amping them up, and Thomas was jumping up and down on the sidelines in excitement.

And that’s when freshman McKenzie Forbes showed up. Forbes, who was scoreless heading into the fourth quarter, hit three huge 3-pointers, each bigger than the next. The first cut the lead to single-digits, the third got the Bears within 2, and a Caldwell three in the corner with 17 seconds left tied the game.

“She’s hungry, and she stays ready,” Caldwell said about Forbes. “Obviously, we have a veteran group, so sometimes her minutes aren’t there … but when her number is called, she’s a vet.”

In overtime, the Sun Devils didn’t get the memo about Forbes, and the freshman guard had no hesitation on catch-and-shoot opportunities — she hit two more huge threes, putting the Bears up by 2 with a minute left. In the end, Forbes went for 17 points in the fourth quarter and overtime on 5-6 from beyond the arc, earning Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors for her performance.

“I just try to take it in stride,” an emotional Forbes said after the game. “When the ball needs to go in, I get it in, and when I’m wide open for a shot, I know (Gottlieb) has confidence that I can take it.”

With less than 30 seconds left, seniors Anigwe and Thomas checked out for their final times in Haas Pavilion, each to standing ovations from the crowd. The pair exited with their names in the Cal record books and with two big wins that set the Bears up well for the postseason.

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