The month of March is full of stories every year, and Cal women’s basketball’s story in the Pac-12 Tournament came to a disappointing and abrupt end Friday. In the short two-chapter novel, the main lesson was that the game of basketball is a 40-minute battle, and you have to fight in every single one of those minutes.
The Bears set foot on the court at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Thursday to start their postseason in the first round against Washington State. After dismantling the Cougars less than five days before the matchup, the Bears had a fighting Washington State team in front of them in Las Vegas for the first round of the Pac-12 championships.
After 10 minutes of action, Washington State boasted a 21-18 lead against Cal. Even though the Bears took the lead at the half, the difference was just 2 points, at 36-34. Cal was shooting with a low accuracy behind the arc, at 3-12, but the Cougars’ lack of size down low helped senior center/forward Kristine Anigwe finish the first half with 17 points on 8-16 shooting. Cal’s veteran guard duo of Receé Caldwell and Asha Thomas would finish the game with nine assists each on the Bears’ way to a season-high 21 assists in the game.
In the second half, the stat sheet took a 180 as Cal shot an extremely efficient 52.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from behind the arc, while Washington State made only 37 percent of its shots and only 1-6 from 3-point range. The third quarter saw the Bears increase their lead to 7 going into the last quarter.
The last 10 minutes, however, were essentially futile for the opposition, as a 13-1 run to start the quarter brought the Bears their first-round win and the right to face cross-bay rival No. 7 Stanford in the quarterfinal.
Anigwe, recently named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, finished the game with 27 points and 16 rebounds (Cal’s Pac-12 tournament single-game record) for her 31st straight double-double, while her three blocks increased her career total to 200 for another Cal program record. Three other Bears — Caldwell, sophomore guard Kianna Smith and junior forward Jaelyn Brown — joined Anigwe with double-digit scoring in the game.
Washington State’s junior guard Chanelle Molina couldn’t get much help during her 24-point game, as Cal’s defense held the Cougars’ leading scorer, redshirt junior forward Borislava Hristova, to only 10 points.
On Friday, however, the story took a drastic turn — the Cardinal seemed to have studied quite hard for their game against the Bears.
The Bears were the ones who took an early 5-point lead against Stanford and finished the first quarter up 16-13. Cal’s defense looked as good as Stanford’s, with the Cardinal’s efforts focused on stopping Anigwe. In the second quarter, however, Stanford started to find its rhythm, and a 19-13 quarter score saw the Cardinal go to the locker room with a 3-point lead, 32-29.
Stanford head coach Tara Vanderveer’s game plan was simple: Take Anigwe out of the equation, which is just what the Cardinal did. The team in white jerseys displayed how effective the players are at taking away the opponents’ strengths — Anigwe, who’s having the season of her career, was at just 3 points when the first 20 minutes had passed, making only one of her eight shot attempts from the floor. Caldwell came up strong again as a leader, even though the graduate transfer is in her first year with the team, tallying 11 points by the half to lead all scorers.
Closing down on Anigwe, the Cardinal gave up a lot of opportunities behind the arc, and the Bears, even though they weren’t especially good, were serviceable as they made six of 17 attempts for 35.3 percent (good accuracy considering they only made five of their 20 attempts inside the arc). Stanford was way more efficient, shooting 48 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent behind the arc, but Cal dominated the offensive boards, grabbing nine to Stanford’s three, which resulted in the Bears taking 12 more shots in the first half.
In the third quarter, the Bears missed some opportunities to take back the lead, and the Cardinal always kept them at arm’s length, as a balanced 15-15 quarter saw Stanford carry its 3-point lead to the final 10 minutes.
With seven minutes left in the game, a Caldwell jumper cut the Stanford lead to 1 at 51-50; this ended up being the Bears’ last successful field goal of the Pac-12 Tournament. After two made free throws by Brown cut the lead back to 3 with 5:43 remaining, the Cardinal went on an 8-0 run with two back-to-back threes and a fast-break layup.
Anigwe’s successful trip to the line with 2 ½ minutes left in the game became Cal’s last points of the tournament, as Stanford finished the game with another 9-0 run to end the game at 72-54, advance to the semifinal and claim the bragging rights in the historic rivalry.
Stanford’s sophomore forward Maya Dotson and senior center Shannon Coffee did a great job sharing defensive duties on Anigwe. Anigwe found a little rhythm in the second half to finish the game with 14 points and 14 rebounds for her 32nd consecutive double-double, but she shot 4-15 from the field, as she had arguably one of her least effective games of the season.
Coffee, along with a great job on defense, hit the crucial 3-pointer at the top of the key that started the 8-0 run in the fourth for the Cardinal, but the player of the match was surely sophomore guard Kiana Williams, who orchestrated the Cardinal win with 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
The downfall for the Bears was 3-point shooting, as when Anigwe was taken out of the equation by the Cardinal defense, Cal relied heavily on the deep shot. The Bears, however, made only one (yes, one) of their 13 attempts behind the arc in the second half. After hitting 3-4 in the first half, Caldwell missed all of her four attempts in the second half, even though she still finished the game with a team-high 17 points. Cal’s other two guards, Thomas and Smith, were abysmal from the floor as the senior went 2-15, while the sophomore hit 2-10 throughout the game.
The Bears finished the game with incredible numbers on the negative side, as they converted only 28.8 percent of their attempts from the floor and 23.3 percent of their 3-point attempts. Stanford’s game plan worked perfectly with the aid of Cal’s lack of accuracy from deep, as the Cardinal moved on in the Pac-12 Tournament to face Washington in the semifinal Saturday night.
The Huskies, on the other hand, are writing the Cinderella story of the conference tournament, as they earned an upset over Oregon State on Friday and made it to the final four after finishing the regular season 11th in the conference. Stanford ended up ending Washington’s story, as well, with a 72-61 win. And on Sunday, the No.1 and No. 2 seeds Oregon and Stanford faced off. The Cardinal finished a wonderful weekend trip to Las Vegas with a win over the Pac-12 regular-season champions, holding the Ducks to only 57 points in a 7-point win.
Cal will now return to campus to gather around and wait for the selection day for the NCAA tournament on March 18, as the team hopes for another chance to write an alternative ending to the turbulent story that has been this 2018-19 campaign.