I’m back, trying to help maintain Golden Blogs as a place of consistent coverage of women’s hoops. We may need to re-define consistency, however, because lately this has turned into a bi-weekly journal. It’s been a season of discovery for me as a WBB fan, understanding a different set of rhythms in a new sport. Nick tweeted at me that...
...and while I have definitely been into the preseason action, and discovering the nuances of our team, I do indeed have this sense of waiting for the Pac-12 to start so we can get into a real flow. Some of that is just the differently competitive nature of women’s basketball. In a top heavy world, even a good non-conference schedule (and I think we have one) is going to include a bunch of teams that we should beat easily, and who have no realistic shot at pulling an upset. Games in which we are, in effect, playing against ourselves and our own standards. Those types of games are interesting in an intellectual kind of way, but not necessarily in an emotional I-need-to-go-home-and-write-NOW kind of way. Contrast that with the first several weeks of the conference season. The LA schools at home. A road trip to the desert. The Washington schools at home. A trip to LA. My pulse is racing a little just thinking about it. Once the conference season starts, it’s going to be hard to keep myself from writing once a week. The story unfolds rapidly. But in the dog days of preseasons cupcakes and long gaps for finals, the story seems less urgent.
Combine that with a dearth of TV coverage, and time spent squinting at livestreams or live box scores, and what you’ve got is an overriding sense of prelude and anticipation. And only a bi-weekly column.
There were games played in these two weeks: two home victories over San Diego and BYU, sandwiched around a road win at Pacific. Let’s chat about what happened.
San Diego, 6-2
This game was a godsend. The night before this Thursday evening contest, Haas Pavilion was the site of a bloodbath. The men lost 96-69 to Central Arkansas, in another game that became a candidate for worst losses in modern Cal history. Fan base morale reached a new low, and discussion in these parts was depressingly toxic. I wasn’t planning on going to the San Diego game -- a 7:00 weeknight tip against a mediocre opponent, but after the Central Arkansas game it felt mandatory, for the sake of my basketball soul.
I’m glad I did.
The vibe is good around women’s hoop these days. There’s a sense of optimism...a sense of life that’s been missing on the men’s side. A sense of possibility. And even though the crowd on a cold Thursday night for a less-than-glamorous opponent was not what we’re hoping to see once the Pac-12 gets started, you could still feel it in the air. Excitement.
The Bears dispatched the Toreros with relative ease, on the strength of a phenomenally efficient offensive performance. When you front Kristine Anigwe with smaller players, you are going to pay, especially against this year’s group of capable guards who are steadily improving at understanding what the defense is giving and finding the right entry passes when they’re available in the post. Kristine went off to the tune of 11-14 shooting and 26 points. Nina added 13 on 6-7 shooting. Meanwhile Kianna, Asha, and Mikayla had 7, 6, and 5 assists respectively.
The Bears ended up shooting 69%(!) from the floor, and with the wide array of opportunities inside, and in transition, they only had to hoist 7 threes, making 4 of them. One of the themes this year is offensive diversity, and the newfound ability to adjust to what the opponent’s defense is offering. The offense in the San Diego game was an encouraging sign.
In addition, we saw some cool new defensive looks with Kristine at the top of a press and some of the half court pressure. One of my personal adjustments this year is getting used to the lack of television, meaning I have no video to run back. This means I don’t have a detailed breakdown of what we were running (yet), but the look was cool and Kristine ended up with 3 steals.
I said the other week that one of the reasons to go to games is you never know what awesomeness you’re going to witness in person. I took two great memories from this game. One was this play:
Asha just straight took the ball and got herself a fast break layup. Just TOOK it from her. The angle doesn’t do it justice. I was sitting almost directly opposite, and I could clearly see the rip and the startled look on the San Diego player’s face. It was one of those jaw dropping moments of individual greatness that make you pick your mouth up off the floor. It reminded me of Brittany Boyd--and trust me, I do not invoke Brittany’s name lightly. I love sick basketball plays like that.
And of course, I got to see Coach Gottlieb’s 200th career victory. I’ve only recently started giving thought to how good she’s been for this program and our student athletes, and I want to save those burgeoning thoughts for a column when I have time to do them justice. But watching her reach this milestone, especially in light of the state of our men’s program, made me particularly grateful for the current, quite healthy, state of Cal women’s basketball and its leadership.
I was out of town for this one, and I encountered one of the more frustrating realities of being a WBB fan. Some games you just aren’t going to be able to watch at all. Not on TV. Not on an official live stream. Not on an illegal stream that’s wired through an ISP in Istanbul. For some games you’re only going to get Twitter and the box score. Apparently I’m going to have to get used to this.
Here’s what I can decipher about the game from the smoke signals coming from Stockton.
- We won. Yay. Losing to an inferior opponent would have been an awful black mark on the resume, a confidence blow, and a bad sign about the progress of this squad. It apparently wasn’t pretty, but 7-2 is 7-2.
- Evidently the defense struggled early and gave up a bunch of good looks to keep UOP in the game for most of the first half. This is borne out by the fact they ended up allowing 85 points on 1.04 points per possession, their worst defensive effort since UConn (and statistically probably the worst of the year, relative to opponent). Evidently many of the struggles were in zone defense.
- The reports I got on the Cal defense are hard to reconcile with what I’ve seen this year -- an intense, improving defensive squad that has bounced back admirably from losing its best perimeter defender.
- Kristine Anigwe is a beast. This is a recording.
- Asha Thomas went 0-5 from deep. She is shooting 38% from three point range this year, but she is just 1-16 on the road. Is this something to worry about? Will she light up Kentucky on Thursday and shut me up?
Nick already wrote a recap of this game, so I’ll just piggy-back my thoughts on top of his.
- Kristine’s absence was of some concern. Coach didn’t want to talk about it afterward, other than to say it’s over and she’ll play at Kentucky. Kristine was with the team in warm-ups and throughout the game on the bench, so whatever the reason was, it was almost certainly not health related. It’s worth noting that this is not the first time in her career she has sat for unexplained reasons. This is also the second time players have sat this season -- Kianna, Bird, and Mikayla all sat the first half of the exhibition against Vanguard. There are a lot of good people on this team, and they’ve got a steady, principled head coach -- hopefully these incidents are behind us as we head into conference season.
- There’s a lot of versatility on this team -- enough to overcome Kristine’s absence against BYU. Mikayla, fresh off crossing the 1000 point milestone, had a monster game on both ends, and behind her the scoring was balanced up and down the lineup. But 38.5% shooting and .9 points per possession are well below what this team has shown offensively the last several weeks. Entry passes just weren’t as easy, or as useful, with Kristine out of the game, and spacing was not ideal. Your incredibly obvious analysis of the day: this team needs Kristine Anigwe on the floor to play its best offensively.
- However, defensively they turned around whatever was ailing them in Stockton and locked down a decent offensive squad. Some of the BYU struggles were just plain ol’ poor shooting, but the Cal defense also spent most of the day changing their looks and taking the defensive intensity higher and higher and higher. BYU struggled to get to comfortable spots on the floor, and looked thoroughly overwhelmed for most of the game. If this year’s big indicator is defense, something we’ve been saying around here for awhile, then the performance against BYU without Kristine allayed a lot of concerns that might have arisen in the Central Valley.
- I sat near CJ West’s father for this one. He did not know CJ was going to start and he, in his own words, was “a wreck” for most of the 1st half. CJ did not have her best game offensively, but held her own defensively and on the boards, and provided a solid inside presence. Dad was pleased. He also told me that he needs to learn the words to “Bear Territory” so he can join in next time I start it. This is another example of why going to WBB games is the best sports value in the Bay Area.
- I want to appreciate Jaelyn Brown for a second. She hasn’t gotten a lot of love in this space because her performances are always overshadowed by star upperclassmen or precocious freshman. But she has quietly been an important presence off the bench, part of the increased depth this year that makes us a threat to win the conference. Last year she seemed to often play out of control and a little lost. This year, I don’t think we’ve seen any of that. Instead, she’s moved well, made good decisions, guarded her assignment, and been a threat inside and outside. Nick’s theory is that we go to full court pressure when she enters the game and we always get a steal on the first press possession. Something else to keep an eye on. But regardless, what a luxury to have that good a player, with starter’s talent, providing solid, reliable minutes and energy off the bench.
It feels like we’ve been stuck in the movie previews for a long time. It’s time for the feature to start. Kentucky on Thursday. Then the Pac-12 season. No more wins we can take for granted. A big test every time we take the floor.
To my eye, this is the best Cal squad to suit up since the Final Four year. But that’s just theory. The proof is on the court. Are we ready? I’m pretty excited to find out.