Pac-12 Feature: Tournament for the Ages
Maybe it should be no surprise that in a year when the Pac-12 women’s basketball field has been as deep and rich with individual talent as it has ever been, that somebody might make a little history.
Five games into what has been billed as a tournament for the ages, the Cal Bears were the ones to pull it off. The 10th-seeded Bears pulled off the biggest upset in tournament history Friday afternoon, knocking off No. 2 seed Arizona State 75-64.
The Bears head to the semifinals for the eight time in nine seasons, facing off against No. 3 seed UCLA on Saturday, looking for a return trip to the championship game.
UCLA defeated 11th-seeded Arizona, 72-51. The two in-state rivals have played twice this season, splitting the season series. In an unusual twist, only one of those was a conference game. The two teams matched up in a non-conference gam in December, the Bears coming out on top. UCLA knows full well that Cal is capable of ending its hopes for a title.
“Someone told me that this is the biggest upset in the history of the Pac-12 Tournament, and I'd first just like to say I think that speaks to the strength of the conference,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I don't know that this conference has ever been this deep or this good. We felt that kind of in some painful ways with our record, but it's also ultimately challenged our players to get better and be ready for this tournament.”
A Cal team that had a great non-conference – going 11-2 including huge wins over Louisville and UCLA - and then stumbled hard through a long conference season. The Bears endured losing streaks of five and four games – finishing 10th at 4-14. It was their lowest finish in conference play since finishing 8th in the Pac-12 back in 2004-05.
But the young Bears, who start two freshmen and two sophomores, are finally finding its footing, winning three of their last four games. Right on time for the postseason.
“What I’m really excited about now is that the talent and the togetherness and the youthful energy is back,” Gottlieb said. “It’s hard when you are losing to keep that. But we’ve coupled that with growing up a little bit and making plays today that we didn’t make a couple of months ago.”
Heading into the tournament, Gottlieb she said she wanted her team to be the one that no one would want to play. And the Bears players have heeded that word with back-to-back gutty performances, following up Thursday’s overtime win over Utah with their biggest victory of the season against the 10th-ranked Sun Devils.
The Bears are following the lead of freshman post Kristine Anigwe, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year who finished the game against ASU with 24 points and 11 rebounds, her 13th double-double of the season and her 15th game of 20 or more points.
“I just wanted to win. I wanted our team to win,” Anigwe said. “I felt like our coach wants this so bad, so it makes us want it ever more. So that was just like my push.”
Anigwe found herself looking over at an animated Cal bench and it fueled her. “I was like ‘We have to win. We can’t go home.’” Sophomore forward Penina Davidson added a career-high 17 points for Cal and Asha Thomas contributed 16 as Cal improved to 5-1 against Arizona State in tournament play.
The Bears shot 69 percent from the field, a tournament record. “Kristine throws so much attention that it creates opportunity for other people,” Davidson said. I couldn’t have done it without our guys making the passes that they do.”
Arizona State guard Elisha Davis, who grew up just blocks from Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, complimented the Bears on their toughness. “I’m heartbroken about what we did and how we didn’t play our game, but I’m very happy for them and I hope they continue to bring that in every game and they continue to make more upsets and punch their ticket into the NCAA Tournament,” Davis said. “You can’t hate on people when they do good. You have to respect their game and what they did and hopefully we take things from that.”
At 15-16 overall, the Bears will need to win this tournament to get into the NCAA brackets. “Every team is going to write their own story, and it’s really neat to see this team right now say ‘let’s go’ after this,” Gottlieb said. “We have two more days to get what we want and that’s a championship here. But it speaks to who they have been the whole time. Because even when it was hard, nobody quit on each other or on me. It was just a process to get where we needed to go.”
Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-
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