One game can be misleading, but at least one very important pre-season question was answered on Friday night in Berkeley.
Kristine Anigwe is healthy and ready for her junior campaign.
Anigwe wasn’t at her imperious best, but she led Cal in scoring, drew a ton of fouls, and provided solid interior defense. Against a typically disciplined St. Mary’s, her presence may well have been the difference between victory and defeat.
At halftime, Cal seemed poised for a comfortable victory. The Bears ran up 45 points before the break despite getting exactly zero field goals from their best player, mostly thanks to comical foul trouble. It was a very encouraging offensive display from a team that often stagnated last year when their #1 offensive focal point wasn’t getting easy touches and shots.
Unfortunately, the nine point lead Cal built wouldn’t last. St. Mary’s turned the game into a back and forth affair with a 30 point 3rd quarter, fueled largely by questionable transition defense from the Bears that gave St. Mary’s a succession of corner threes.
Gottlieb and the Bears would address their defensive issues at the quarter break and hold the Gaels to just 14 points the rest of the way. That renewed defensive focus allowed Cal to retake the lead, get a couple of critical baskets in the final few minutes, and then force St. Mary’s to play the fouling game. After 4 straight made free throws from freshman Kianna Smith and two more from Asha Thomas, the Bears were safe with the season opening win.
- The immediate post-game concern is the health of Mi’Cole Cayton, who went down under the basket after a Cal fast break late in the game with an apparent knee injury. She was in a great deal of pain and was unable to put any weight on her knee in the immediate aftermath of the injury. She (and the rest of her teammates) stuck around to watch the men play, wearing a leg brace but without crutches. I’d guess this is one of those situations where they have to wait for swelling to go down before an MRI will determine the extent of any knee damage.
- Alaysia Styles and Smith both made their Cal debuts, and neither looked out of their depth. Styles had some excellent pick and roll finishes, and Smith looked comfortable on both ends playing crunch time minutes. Doing that against a random Big Sky bottom dweller would’ve been plenty, but showing so well against a top 100 team is particularly encouraging.
- My moment of the game? Inside the final minute, Kristine takes an inbounds pass and St. Mary’s starts to intentionally foul. Kristine takes exception with how hard and high the foul was and gives the St. Mary’s player an epic stare down before Mikayla quickly pulls her away from the incident. Both teammates immediately start laughing at the entire situation before Kristine steps up to calmly hit a free throw.
- Cal’s offense went for 1.06 points/possession and showed impressive scoring balance. 21 assists on 30 made baskets is encouraging as well. If game 1 is a solid indication, this team won’t be nearly as reliant on Anigwe and Thomas as they were last year.
UConn is up next, which . . . well, at least the Huskies play Stanford first, so we can compare notes. Whatever happens next weekend won’t detract from my optimistic feelings about this year’s team.