Narratives. The story defines the journey, and shapes the way we view our sports teams.
A year ago, the Cal Women’s Basketball Team was 3-5 in conference, after going undefeated in the non-conference season. Their wins had been against Colorado and Arizona, two teams that would finish tied for last place. They had lost to Utah, another team that would finish in the last place Pac-12 logjam. They had lost two nail biters, one in double overtime to Arizona State, and another in a collapse versus Oregon that was one of the most soul crushing defeats in program history.
A reasonable narrative at this point last year was of a team struggling to fully realize the potential in its considerable talent. A team that simply struggled to win games they could, or should, win.
Now it is January of 2018. The Bears are 5-3 in conference. Of their three losses, two have been to UCLA, one of the frontrunners in the Pac-12, and one came against ASU, another top tier team. Cal is ranked 23rd by the AP and their RPI is 17th in the nation. Their five wins have been over teams who should finish in the bottom half of the conference: USC (twice), Arizona, Washington, and Washington State.
Are you a glass half full person, or a glass half empty person? I wrote last week that California looks very much like the team their national ranking and conference standing indicate: a borderline top 25 squad that has trouble with elite teams. And after a split in Los Angeles: losing to UCLA by 8 and winning in the last minute at USC, this narrative still holds. If you were hoping for a conference championship, that narrative might be a disappointment. However, if we’re looking at program trajectory, and we’re comparing ourselves to this time last year, you can find a lot of reason to take pride in what this group has already accomplished.
How does the glass look to you? What’s your narrative for this team? What narrative will the team write for itself the rest of the way?
UCLA (13-5, 4-3)
Those are the quarter scoring breakdowns in Cal’s 4 winnable games versus ranked teams this year. (I am not including UConn, because UConn.) In each game, Cal struggled offensively in the 1st half.* In each game Cal entered the locker room at halftime with at least an 8 point deficit. In each game, Cal’s offensive performance improved in the 2nd half. But in each game, the early offensive struggles were too much to overcome, and the Bears could not get over the hump in the 2nd half.
The pattern fit again in Pauley Pavilion, where we cut the 8 point UCLA halftime lead to 4 a couple of times in the 2nd half, but Kristine’s recurring foul trouble and the hole we had dug ourselves were too much to overcome. Maybe one of these games we will get over the hump against a good team. But maybe, more practically, one of these games we won’t be fighting from behind against better competition because we will find our offensive groove earlier in the contest. Stay tuned.
USC (14-5, 5-3)
Stop me if you’ve heard these stories:
(1) Kristine Anigwe was limited by foul trouble, and Cal had to fight through much of the contest without their best player.
(2) The Bears played a tough, close game against a team in the lower half of the conference and managed to pull out a victory.
I don’t want to oversimplify, but 3 months into the season there are a few things we’ve grown accustomed to. Kristine Anigwe is an elite player -- arguably the best post to ever play in a Cal uniform -- and every opposing team knows that. Kristine plays inside with a relentless aggression that is often a tidal wave, sometimes under control, but sometimes reckless. Opposing teams know that also. And they do their best to exploit this tendency. Her first two fouls on Sunday were legitimate, and the product of bad choices -- one on overzealous and poorly positioned help defense and the other a swipe down with her arms on Kristen Simon when staying vertical was the more sound and wise play. Her 3rd and 5th were offensive foul calls that were, on the one hand, borderline and part flop, but on the other hand the result of Kristine lowering her shoulder and attacking her defender. The outcome of her aggression, and the referees’ reaction to it, dictates the flow of every game Cal plays. In this contest Kristine received her 5th foul with 5:01 left and her team holding a one point lead. She had been the best offensive player in the game, scoring 20 points on just 12 shots, including two 3 pointers. The Golden Bears had to win the game without her.
[Cliche warning] Wins on the road in the Pac-12 are hard, and you can’t take any of them for granted. USC is a borderline top 50 RPI team and they’ve played close contests against Oregon, Oregon State, and Stanford. On the other hand, they’re a lower tier team in the Pac-12 this year, a borderline NCAA team at best. If Cal aspires to a top of the conference finish, SC is a team they should beat. Just like Arizona. Just like Washington. Just like Washington State.
So if you predicted that Cal was going to play a close game on Sunday, after seeing close games against that list of opponents, you had history on your side. Turns out it was the closest of contests, with both teams leading twice in the last 4 minutes. In the end, with Kristine on the bench, it was Asha Thomas who wanted the ball in crunch time, scoring 5 points on two drives during the Bears’ last two full possessions to put Cal ahead by 3. USC missed 5 (yes 5) three point attempts in the last 23 seconds, and we all were allowed to breathe again as Cal secured yet another close win.
Kianna Smith, Mikayla Cowling, and CJ West all stepped up in Kristine’s absence, and of course Asha was the unquestioned leader with the game on the line. She feels like a senior, and acts like a senior, and plays like a senior. One of the things a team needs to win in big, tense, end of game moments is someone without fear -- someone who isn’t scared of making a play. Put the ball in her hands and LET’S GO.
Hosting the Arizonas with 10 Games Left
If you’re a worrier, you wonder whether we will at some point manage to win a game against the lower tier comfortably (I’m looking at you, Arizona), and if we can solve the 1st half offensive struggles against good clubs (I’m looking at you, Arizona State).
If you’re an optimist you see a team that has been in all but two games this season, has fought through adversity, that looks more cohesive and resilient than other Cal teams in recent memory, and that finds a way to win close games. You also see a team that has the potential to be far better at knocking in shots than they’ve shown, and whose best offensive days may very well be ahead of them.
There are two different tests this week, one against a team that lost by a combined 58 points on their last road trip to visit the Oregon schools, and one against a team we are tied with in 4th place, and that beat us in Tempe.
A sweep would put the Bears in great position heading into the second half of conference play. Come out to Haas to watch it.
*If you want efficiency and pace adjusted stats instead of counting stats (hi Tatavio), I ran those to confirm the trend, I just chose not to bore everyone with the minutiae. Just trust me on this one.