Cal women’s basketball ready to make noise at Pac-12 Championships

A basketball player bounces the ball and runs down the court as an opponent attempts to block her.
Lorenzo Dela Cruz /File

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It’s that time of the year again when every mistake made throughout the season is redeemable. Pac-12 Championships are just around the corner, and Las Vegas will be rocking with some of the best basketball players that the nation has ever seen.

Earlier in the week, the Pac-12 announced its annual regular season awards, and Cal senior center/forward Kristine Anigwe received the Defensive Player of the Year award for her nation-best 16.4 rebounds per game and 1.7 rebounds (second best in conference).

Even though the 6’4” senior was a top candidate in the national Player of the Year race as well, she was edged by Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu, who received the award for the second year in a row, averaging 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and a conference-best 8.1 assists per game en route to a Ducks regular season conference title. Ionescu also broke the record for most triple-doubles in a season with seven, while Anigwe broke the Pac-12 record for most consecutive double-doubles with 30.

The only way to witness these two players on the same court this weekend, however, is for both of them to lead their teams to a finals appearance. This feat seems more probable for tournament favorites Oregon, though, as Cal women’s basketball will have to overcome several challenges to make it to the top.

After finishing conference play 9-9 with four straight wins to end the regular season, the Bears’ first opponent will be Washington State on Thursday at 6 p.m. The Cougars probably do not miss Cal much, since their home finale was spoiled last Sunday by a 22-point blowout win for the Bears, led by a historic 30-30 performance by Anigwe.

The key of the game in Pullman was the rebounding, as Cal outperformed Washington State 50-22. It’s hard to imagine the Cougars winning the battle on the boards, but they at least need to not be outrebounded by Anigwe alone.

The Bears swept the season series with an average of an 18-point differential, so it’s hard to expect anything less Thursday. But the goal for Cal shouldn’t be just winning the game — the team should create a comfortable separation early and possibly utilize some depth in the game. After all, the Bears will have less than 24 hours of rest before going against No. 2 seed Stanford on Friday, assuming everything goes according to plan against Washington State.

In sports, it is well known that prior stats and performance don’t mean a thing when it comes to rivalries. More so, the victory goes to the team that wants it more and leaves the most out on the court. The Bears proved that in the first matchup between the two sides back in January, upsetting then-No. 8 Stanford with a buzzer-beater by senior guard Asha Thomas.

Stanford evened the series with a blowout at Maples Pavilion, but after splitting the two games, a quarterfinal matchup between the two archenemies would be quite the game to watch.

For Cal, the road to the championship could possibly mean topping three ranked teams (No. 7 Stanford, No. 11 Oregon State and either No. 6 Oregon or No. 25 UCLA), and even though the competition will be at the highest level, it’s hard to imagine that Cal will lose the battle in the paint. Anigwe, as if she is not already one of the best in the nation, will have even more incentive, since this will be her last chance at a title with the blue and gold.

On the other hand, the Bears, even though they haven’t been the most consistent team, have the skills to set fire behind the arc. Good 3-point shooting teams always have a puncher’s chance against any opponent, and Cal will definitely have one in this tournament. The Bears are a 36 percent 3-point shooting team, but they are shooting a blazing 44.4 percent behind the arc in their four-game winning streak.

While the level of madness is at its highest this time of the year, Anigwe and company are more than capable of creating their own fuss, as exemplified throughout the season.

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