Cal Women's Basketball: Bears Peaking for Challenging Pac-12 Tournament

Cal's Kristine Anigwe was named Pac-12 defensive player of the yearPhoto courtesy of Cal Athletics

Cal opens play Thursday, but Bears appear to be safely into NCAA Tournament no matter what

Cal would have to win four games in four days and might need to beat three teams currently ranked among the nation’s top 11 teams for the Bears to win the women’s Pac-12 tournament, which begins Thursday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

(The Pac-12 Networks will televise the first round, quarterfinals and semifinals of the Pac-12 women's basketball tournament, with the championship game being televised by ESPN2. See the complete bracket and ticket information here.)

However, the Bears don’t seem to have the pressure of needing to win the conference tournament to get an NCAA Tournament berth.

Seventh-seeded Cal (18-11, 9-9 Pac-12) opens play Thursday at 6 p.m. in a first-round game against Washington State (9-20, 4-14), the same team Cal beat by 22 points in Pullman, Wash., on Sunday. That gave the Bears their fourth straight win, coming on the heels of five consecutive losses.

“I feel good about where we are as a team,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said this week. “We challenged our team to finish strong, and we really needed the last four games to finish 4-0. . . . We’re trying to peak at the right time.”

If the Bears win their opener, they would face seventh-ranked and second-seeded Stanford on Friday at 6 p.m. And if Cal gets by the Cardinal, the Bears would probably meet 11th-ranked and third-seeded Oregon State in Saturday’s 8:30 p.m. semifinal game.

If Cal makes all the way to the finals, its opponent in Sunday’s 5 p.m. championship game is likely to be regular-season champion Oregon, which is ranked sixth this week.

The Pac-12 is pretty well set for the NCAA Tournament. The conference is expected to get six teams into the tournament – Cal, UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona State, Oregon and Stanford. None of those six teams is seeded worse than eighth in ESPN’s latest bracketology of tournament projections, so they all seem fairly safe, although nothing is absolutely certain when predicting the selection committee’s whims.

The conference probably would get a seventh team into the NCAA Tournament if a team like Utah, USC or Arizona wins the conference tournament to get the automatic NCAA berth. That is a long shot, however.

This is also an opportunity for Cal to get a few wins to improve the All-American chances for Kristine Anigwe. She certainly has the statistics, averaging 23.1 points, which is sixth in the nation, and 16.4 rebounds, which leads the nation by a wide margin. Her 32-point, 30-rebound game against Washington State on Sunday got national attention, but an upset of a ranked team would help her cause considerably. Seldom is a player from an unranked team named to the Associated Press first-team All-American squad.

“I don’t know what I can say (about Anigwe) that would do her justice,” Gottlieb said. “She has had a season that is as good as anyone in the country this year, maybe the last couple years. I hope the nation recognizes it.”

Of Anigwe’s 32-30 game Sunday, Gottlieb said, “It just felt like a regular game.”

The Bears will be favored to win its opening game against the Cougars, a team the Bears beat twice this season, but they will face a major challenge in the second round if they advance. Cal split its two games with Stanford (25-4, 15-3) this season, winning the game in Berkeley on a buzzer-beating shot by Asha Thomas, and losing the matchup at Stanford by 25 points two days later.

The Cardinal finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak that included a 14-point road win over UCLA and a 21-point victory over Arizona State.

"I think we're playing really well," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "I think we're getting as many people healthy as we can."