While you may not hear about the University of California Golden Bears when talking in NCAA women’s basketball circles, they are a program that has been used to winning, especially since Lindsay Gottlieb became their head coach. Since taking over the program prior to the 2011 season, coming into this season, Gottlieb had compiled a 118-51 record during her tenure. During her first four years, the Golden Bears won at least 21 games per season, including at least 13 conference victories and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament three times. They also finished last season ranked 20th in the nation. The one time they didn’t, they actually went all the way to the Women’s Final Four (in 2012) before bowing out to Louisville.
Last season, however, with a young team on the floor (seven of 12 players were freshman and sophomores) the bottom fell out and the Golden Bears finished 15-17, missing the tournament for the first time in Gottlieb’s tenure. The season was a bit of a surprise, especially since the team started 10-4, but Gottlieb, and her bosses, were undeterred. Prior to the start of this season, Gottlieb received a three-year contract extension, keeping her in charge of the Golden Bears through the 2020-21 season. The team has responded with their best start in history, currently sitting 12-0, ranked #21 in the AP Poll and #18 in the Coaches Poll.
A big reason for the fast start is the play of reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Kristine Anigwe. Anigwe scored 50 points in 24 minutes in a win over Sacramento State. In doing so, she became the first player in school history, male or female, to score that many points in a single game. The previous record was 48 points by Ed Gray in 1997. Anigwe followed up that record-setting night with 32 points, 15 rebounds three blocks and two steals in an 82-74 win over #20 Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma victory occurred during the Puerto Rico Classic Tournament and was Cal’s coming out party. Her performance in that game (and for the tournament where she averaged 29.7 points and 11.7 rebounds per game) earned her the espnW and Pac-12 player of the week awards. The win also made the country stand up and take notice of a team that was 9-0 coming into the tournament but hadn’t received much fanfare due to a relatively weak schedule to that point.
While Anigwe certainly deserves a lot of credit for the team’s record-setting start, she isn’t the only reason the team is playing well. Earlier in the season, Gottlieb surprised her players with news of her first pregnancy (she is due in May 2017) and the team has come together as a group to support their coach, with many of them looking forward to being big sister’s when the baby arrives.
With a star player in Anigwe leading the way and the team bonding over the pending birth of Gottlieb’s first child, this young team is poised to make a big March run, but many tests await. The Cal performances in those games will tell us a lot about what to expect from them in the second half of the season.