When news broke about an hour before the game that Kristine Anigwe wouldn’t participate, my immediate concern was whether or not Cal could score enough to win the game. We all know how critical Kristine Anigwe is on the offensive end, both because she’s a high volume, high efficiency scorer and because she demands so much attention from defenders.
But in Cal’s 68-62 defeat, it was her defense that was most needed.
6’9’’ Felicia Aiyeotan scored 16 points on 8-11 shooting to lead Virginia in scoring. We knew going in that Aiyeotan is an excellent defender who can make scoring inside exceedingly difficult, but she wasn’t supposed to be a dominant offensive force. Against Cal, without their own athletic 6’4’’ rim protector, she was able to consistently establish solid post position and easily receive entry passes with her absurd wing span. Cal simply didn’t have an answer.
In many other ways, Cal had the ingredients they needed to win the game. The back court duo of Asha Thomas and Kianna Smith were excellent, combining for 37 points on 28 shots and 10 assists. The Bears generally hit a solid number of the jumpers they were going to need considering how tough it was going to be to score in the paint. They won the rebounding battle solidly. I don’t think it’s entirely sour grapes to suggest that if Kristine Anigwe plays and is 100%, Cal probably wins this game.
I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if that makes you feel better. It isn’t helping me right now.
If you’re looking for the other big factor that allowed Virginia to escape with the win, you have to look at turnover margin. The Cavaliers held a massive advantage, coughing up possession only 6 times to Cal’s 15. For the Bears, 15 turnovers is a typical night. But Virginia is a high turnover team - their previous low for turnovers in a game was 9 vs. 7-23 Central Connecticut, and they average 16 a night. For all of the good things Cal’s defense did (holding UVA to 39% shooting, rebounding 70% of UVA’s misses, not fouling much) their inability to disrupt teams and force turnovers has been a problem all year long.
And so an up-and-down season ends. A season that began with promise but also with a devastating injury to a key guard. A season that saw the Bears rebound from a demoralizing mid-season shooting slump, only to have their best player go down with an as-yet unannounced affliction that clearly limited her over the last month of the season, before ruling her out of what turned out to be the season finale.
This marks the last game for Penina Davidson and Mikayla Cowling, two stalwart Bears who did so many different things in so many different games for this program. It’s not how we wanted to see the road end for them, but it doesn’t change anything about how they’ll be remembered.
What I am choosing to focus on in the disappointment of this individual game is Kianna Smith. Cal’s freshman point guard willed the Bears into a competitive game, scoring a career high 20 points while still dishing out 8 assists. She scored with a variety of buckets - 3s, pull ups, runners, scoops. She was the person scoring when Cal came out cold and fell behind early, and when UVA started hitting shots late and looked like they were going to pull away. She was the best player on the court in the final act of her freshman season.
Next year she will be joined by a (hopefully healthy) Mi’Cole Cayton and 5 star recruit Kenzie Forbes and senior Asha Thomas plus Jaelyn Brown . . . which is to say that Cal will be absolutely stacked at guard next year to surround the black-hole level gravity created by a senior Kristine Anigwe.
Is that all cold comfort after a tough first round exit? Yeah, sure. But it’s what I’ll be dreaming about for the next seven months.