The California Golden Bears have certainly had their share of ups and downs since the end of last season. The ups got another entry when they went to McKale Center and knocked off the No. 13 team in the country on Sunday.
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“This is why you never quit!!” Cal head coach Charmin Smith posted on Twitter. “A special moment is right around the corner! No matter what, this team has continued to fight and show up for one another.”
The Golden Bears’ victory over the Wildcats put an end to a regular season that saw them travel to Connecticut and give the Huskies all they could stand back in November, defeat a ranked Arkansas team, and fall in a close one to a ranked Kentucky squad.
For a team picked last in the conference, those things were not supposed to happen. At least, that’s what outsiders thought.
“I think based on what we lost from last year and what other teams in this conference have on paper, for people who are not inside our locker room, it makes sense that we were picked towards the bottom of the conference,” Smith said. “But for everyone that is in our locker room, it serves as motivation. It just inspires us to be better every single day.”
That belief inside the locker room carried from game one through game 29 on Sunday afternoon. To understand what was lost and why those outside the locker room felt the way they did, it’s necessary to go back to last March.
California had just lost to the eventual national champion Baylor Lady Bears in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Everyone knew that there was change in store. They just didn’t know how much.
The Golden Bears’ star post, Kristine Anigwe, had put the finishing touches on a record-setting career in Berkeley. She was joined by fellow seniors Asha Thomas and Receé Caldwell as expected losses.
The unexpected losses came soon after. Former head coach Lindsay Gottlieb was hired away by the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
Smith returned to Berkeley, which she had left just weeks before to take an assistant coaching position with the WNBA’s New York Liberty. She didn’t get a honeymoon.
Smith had to find a way to replace two former McDonald’s All-Americans in Kianna Smith and McKenzie Forbes. Kianna Smith was on her way to Louisville and Forbes decided Harvard would be her next stop.
The pair had been significant contributors during the 2018-19 season and were expected to step into even larger roles. Kianna Smith started all 33 of the Bears’ games as a sophomore. Forbes averaged 17.0 minutes per game while appearing in every contest as a freshman.
The incoming class was also hit. Decommitments after Gottlieb left put Smith in the position of having to find recruits quickly.
Leilani McIntosh, Jazlen Green and Evelien Lutje Schipholt all answered the bell. On Sunday, Green would lead Cal with 17 points and hit three big 3-pointers as the Golden Bears notched the victory over the Wildcats.
The win in Tucson was something that the current players knew could happen. Smith made it her job from the get-go to help them remember.
“We let them know that this is the team we’re supposed to have – we’re not missing anything – we have everything that we need and everything that we want,” she said. “It’s just about getting everyone to maximize their potential.”
On Sunday, they certainly maximized that potential, giving seniors CJ West, Jaelyn Brown, Chen Yue and Sara Anastasieska one more big win to remember.
“I hope to be remembered as a player who continued to fight, even when things weren’t always going her way,” Brown said before the Pac-12 season started. “I want to be remembered as a fighter, a hard worker and a good teammate.”
On Sunday, her fight and hard work helped her secure the final rebound and putback that lifted her team to victory. What a way to be remembered.
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