In a battle between two young teams trying to integrate new players into the rotation, it was Cal's interior dominance that pushed them past an aggressive Louisville.
For Cal fans, it was a measure of revenge over a team that beat Cal in the Final Four three season ago. Thanks to player turnover, only the coaches on each bench were around for that game. For the program, it represents the dawning of a new era. A team led by Courtney Range, Gabby Green, Mikayla Cowling . . . and a couple of freshmen that arguably stole the show.
Freshman forward Kristine Anigwe led the Bears with 19 points on just 10 shots to go along with 8 rebounds. She's shooting 16-19 so far on the season, and she has proven that she will utterly dominate against inferior post defense. Her game isn't fully polished (6 turnovers and 4 fouls) but it's clear already that she will be Cal's #1 offensive option. It was her scoring that allowed Cal to open up a double digit lead late in the first half, and it was her scoring that helped Cal withstand a strong surge from Louisville in the 2nd half. She showed off a variety of post moves and the various players and defenses that Louisville threw at her didn't seem to matter much. She's gonna be good. She's already good
Of course, it wasn't all Anigwe. She was just one of a group of Bears that controlled the game inside. Remember back when Cal had Brandon, Caldwell and Gray just destroying teams on the glass? Range, Cowling and Anigwe just produced a brilliant homage as part of a 50-27 rebounding advantage for the Bears. We're getting silly stats again, like when Cal has almost as many offensive rebounds (17) than their opponent has defensive rebounds (18). That rebounding dominance translated into points in the paint and 16 absolutely crucial second chance points.
Why was this game even close? Because a typically stifling and aggressive Louisville defense and occasionally disjointed Cal offense combined to produce 26 Cal turnovers. Much of it was trapping and pressing from Louisville, but there were some pretty bad unforced errors as well - silly mistakes like picking up dribbles at bad times, or forcing passes that just weren't there. Issues that will likely improve with time, but slowly. This team isn't going to turn into a low turnover team overnight.
One change (at least, for one game) that will make Cal fans smile: The Bears were 17-22 from the line, and comfortably sealed the game at the charity stripe. Anigwe in particular had an excellent looking stroke from the line, good news considering she is likely to be fouled often this year.
- Asha Thomas has a really nice looking jumper, and contributed nicely on the boards considering how much size she gives up to everybody else in the lineup.
- Speaking of size: Cal only played 7 players - Thomas is the only one shorter than 6'2''. There are going to be many teams Cal plays this year incapable of dealing with that, and Louisville was one of them.
- Chen Yue grabbed 4 minutes off the bench, but Cal basically played a 6 player rotation with Penina Davidson coming off the bench. The bright side is that Cal has the versatility to play only 6 players because so many can play multiple positions. But it does put Cal in danger with foul trouble. Anigwe and Range both had 4 fouls. Hopefully weaker opposition will allow Coach G to develop more players off the bench.
- Louisville got most of their points on fast breaks off of steals, or on 3 pointers when they found the weak points in Cal's zone (the Bears did mix in occasional man-to-man defense). Cal will have to work to tighten up the zone, particularly on corner 3s, but Louisville got very, very little inside and that's where most teams want to live. A promising sign for long term defense.
- One worry I had this year? Cal wouldn't have anybody able to consistently make post entry passes. We'll see how it goes against teams with better bigs, but that certainly didn't look to be an issue - Thomas, Cowling and Green all made nice passes, and there was even a little high-low action with Davidson.
- I have no desire to be Debbie Downer, but I will note that Louisville at #8 seems wildly overrated. The Cardinal basically have the same roster as our Bears - two stud sophomores and a bunch of talented freshmen. I would expect both teams to probably settle in around #20 in the rankings as the season progresses.