5 thoughts from Cal WBB’s exhibition win over Westmont

From left: Cal freshman Kristine Anigwe, Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, Cal junior Courtney Range. (Shot on iPhone 6) — OK, it’s really an iPhone 5s.

A 91–39 win, with all nine players that saw game time finishing in the scoring column. Sunday’s resounding win was the perfect way for Cal women’s basketball to close its preseason preparations, and get ready for this Friday’s opener. Here’s five thoughts about a very young, and very, very talented team.

  1. This team’s length gives it a shot at being elite: To wit: 6–2 sophomore Gabby Green spent considerable time running point, both in half court and transition (“She is unique in her ability to handle the ball at that size,” says Gottlieb), and finished with four assists. It’s part of what sets Cal apart nationally: Gottlieb can feasibly set lineups where the shortest player will be 6–2. From a post perspective, Cal freshman Chen Yue stands 6–7, has great mobility, and shooting range that extends out to 18 feet. Penina Davidson, a 6–3 soph, who like Yue hit a free-throw line jumper, dropped a powerful spin move + layup in the second half that drew one of the biggest responses from the crowd. “We have so many different scoring options on the wing,” said Gottlieb. “It was nice to see the rhythm develop.”
    1a: Cal’s stifling full-court pessure defense was one of its staples, last season. Opponents were funneled toward the sidelines, usually at midcourt, where Cal pounced with rapid-fire traps. Usually, Range or Green headlines the 1–3–1 look, with several options lying in wait in the second tier to snatch up wayward passes. The pressure was its most effective in the third quarter, when Cal held Westmont to five points and forced seven turnovers, including two 10-second backcourt violations.
  2. That’s not to say this team lacks speed: A Cal point guard blowing past defenders, dropping no-look passes for easy layups. Fans might be forgiven if they experienced a bit of Brittany Boyd déjà vu, watching Asha Thomas push pace in transition. The 5–4 freshman, like Boyd a Bay Area product, also showed off her shooting ability (she finished 4-of-5 from three, and had 18 points alongside a game-high seven assists and two steals. Another piece, and definitely one of the most important to factor into this season’s puzzle.
  3. Kristine Anigwe is one of the best freshmen in America: The jewel of this year’s recruiting class, Anigwe finished with a game-high 19 points on Sunday, on 8-of-8 shooting. No hyperbole here: Anigwe’s potential is limitless. Winner of gold medals with Team USA’s U-17 and U-19 teams these past two summers. Gottlieb has said that when Anigwe committed, she knew she was getting instant-impact potential in the low post. (She also thinks Anigwe will dunk before she leaves Berkeley.) On Sunday, the 6–4 post quickly showed off the reason behind the hype. Great hands and bounce. Ability to turn and face and attack off the dribble. Yes, there were instances of youth, in the guise of a few clumsy turnovers, but Gottlieb will live with those. In fact, when Anigwe drew her fourth foul, midway through the fourth quarter (still feels weird to say that), called for brushing Westmont’s point guard as she worked around a screen on the perimeter, Gottlieb couldn’t help but smile. Her 6–4 freshman was step for step a point guard. Few forwards in America can do that.
    3a: Mikayla Cowling, ascending: Anigwe may one day dunk in a game, but right now, Cowling shoots jump shots—extending out to three. The 6–2 sophomore’s motion is unblockable, something that Gottlieb has commented upon since the start of last season, when Cowling would dominate 1 on 1 on 1 games between players in practice. There was one instance of that mid-range stop and pop, but for the most part, Cowling did her damage within the framework of Cal’s pressure D. Seven points, three rebounds, three assists, and a steal offer but a taste of what will be on offer this season. Cowling will emerge as one of the best wings in America.
  4. The importance of Courtney Range: Gottlieb has been saying since Range’s freshman season that she will be a special player. The physical tools have always been there: 6–3 size, ability to hit threes and grab boards and finish in traffic. Where Range might make the biggest impact this season, however, is through her leadership. As Gottlieb put it after the game, “Courtney’s leadership has been unbelievable. It allows Kristine (and the other freshmen) to just play.” This transfer of leadership has been a frequent theme with Gottlieb, and it was a big reason behind the team’s Final Four run in 2012–13. Thanks to that standout senior class, with the likes of Layshia Clarendon, Talia Caldwell, and Eliza Pierre, two pretty good sophomores with last names of Boyd and Gray were allowed to focus upon doing their thing on the court, often to devastating effect.
  5. Final thought: Yes, Cal is young (no seniors), and four freshmen will see significant playing time. But the Bears’ length, athleticism, and versatility will make them contenders for the Pac-12 title—and they won’t have to deal with the burden of expectations that come with being a preseason favorite. That’s definitely one of the ways in which this season differs from the one now past, when the Bears were a preseason conference title contender. In ‘15–16, they’ve been picked to finish fourth, which is right where Gottlieb wants to be. She knows that over the next few months, few teams in America will grow at a rate as accelerated as her own. Come March, these Bears will be knocking on several doors.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops