Kristine Anigwe leads Cal in scoring (21.2ppg) and rebounding (9.3rpg). The sophomore All-Pac 12 performer just came off a monster performance in the Pac-12 Tournament, where she averaged a tournament-record 30 points per game.
"They're a team that constantly has an unbelievable post player inside," said LSU head coach Nikki Vargas. "But their guard play is strong, as well. You've got young ladies that can shoot the three. You've got kids that can play off the bounce. They've got a balanced attack. We're going to have to really dial our defense up to another level."
"They have an inside presence and that we, being shorter, we're going to have to match their physicality and play defense as a whole, not leaving anybody out by their selves," said post player Alexis Hyder. "We're going to play a strong five defense against Cal and get out and run in transition."
While the Bears are capable of a diversified offense, beyond Anigwe, Cal has not found much consistency. Courtney Range is second on the team in scoring (9.1 ppg), but the senior has seen a drop off in her production in recent games. After scoring 15 in the big win against UCLA, Range has not scored more than five points in her last nine contests. Junior Mikayla Cowling and sophomore Asha Thomas each averages 8.8 ppg, but neither has been a consistent threat.
"I think the one thing you've got to see in Cal is the leadership of Coach Gottlieb," said Fargas. "She's done a fantastic job of maintaining a competitive spirit, nature, culture at Cal, and although their conference record isn't as strong as I'm sure she would like to have been as far as win-loss column, the games that they've played in and the ones that they fell short, they were in those games."
"I don't think we need to prove that we belong in the tournament, but we want to win the game," said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, addressing those who claim that Cal did not deserve to be included in the Tournament. "The interesting thing is when you're on the bubble, it's a unique feeling. That said, if you looked at the numbers and you really took what the committee said they were looking at, our 30-game resume compared very favorably with the other teams. I know people want to focus on our conference record and all that kind of stuff, but I think our players are always hungry to prove that they're good. I think they're always hungry to prove that we can compete, and if there's extra motivation to do that, sure, we'll use that."
To beat LSU, Cal will have to contend with Raygyne Moncrief, who leads the Tigers with 16 points per game, including a season-best 25 in her last game. But the talented junior is even more impactful on the defensive end, with an SEC-leading 3.4 steals per game. Moncrief was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and she anchors an LSU defense that forces 20.5 turnovers per game, including over 12 steals per contest (4th best nationally).
"She's an unbelievable defensive player," said LSU head coach Nikki Fargas in an interview with SEC Now. "She's great in the passing lane, she's great with her on-ball defense, and when we're pressing, she's very active and has great anticipation. It makes her teammates want to join in and steal the ball. It's our identity--we turn people over."
Chloe Jackson (13.2 ppg) is LSU's second-leading scorer and main threat from distance, hitting 32% (19 of 59) from beyond the arc. As a team, the Tigers don't take a lot of outside shots (149 attempts as a team), as they are not accurate (24%). By comparison, Cal's Asha Thomas has attempted 153 threes by herself this year.
"I mean, if it's there, I just try and knock it down," said Jackson about her role. "But I mean, if it's the pull-up or it's us taking it into the basket, then that's what we're going to try and do." Â
The Tigers prefer to take the ball to the hole, earning trips to the charity stripe. For the season, the Tigers have attempted 164 more free-throws than their opponents.
"Nikki and her staff have done an incredible job of maximizing their strengths, which is the ability to turn you over. I mean, you don't win eight games in the SEC and 20 games overall or whatever they won with a little bit of a lack of size if you're not doing something to disrupt the other team, and they're terrific at turning you over, flustering the guards, not letting you get the ball to interior players, changing up defenses, but really relying on that end of the floor, and then they create match-up problems. At one point they shifted the lineup and they've gone smaller, and I think that that was in a lot of ways useful for them because it just creates match-up problems all over the floor."
Cal last faced LSU in the Sweet 16 of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, a 73-63 Cal victory. Previous to that loss, head coach Nikki Vargas was 6-1 against Cal, all while she was the head coach at UCLA.
The Bears have won their last six first round Tournament games and hope to continue that streak.
"It's always about the scout and the match-up. I think I have an excellent coaching staff, who the second that the bracket is revealed after we got ourselves together and stopped jumping up and down, we were watching film. I think it's the ability to turn around to scout very quickly. I think the Pac-12 prepares you to face any type of competition. You're always going to face someone good in the first round because it's the NCAA Tournament. And then I think it's mindset. You have to have players refreshed and ready to go, and I think we try to give them the scout, put them in the right mentality, and then we've got competitors out there who don't want to go home, and they want to stay in this thing as long as we can. Maybe that's the formula for success, but really it's a different thing each year with each team."
One of those first-round wins came in Waco three years ago. Senior Courtney Range, who was part of that Cal team, was asked to recall that experience.
"My freshman year we had Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray. Those two together are like a good dynamic," said Range, before moving back to the present team. "But this year, like personally, I feel like this team, because we had all returners, we're a stronger team. Like Kristine said, we trust each other more than last year. We're relying on all 11 players that are playing each game, and to know that we have each other's back, we know that we can go far, and like she said, the trust thing is a big thing with our team."
Gottlieb is excited to see how her team will do on the big stage.
"It's a neat match-up in that I think both teams were really, really hungry to get back to the level that their programs expect. Youknow, the last time we faced LSU was in the Sweet 16 up in Spokane, Washington, and I don't think there's players from either team who have done that since. So I think that all we're trying to do, like Kristine and Courtney and Kayla said, is embrace themoment and be excited to be here because we weren't last year, and at the same time, be competitive and hungry to win the game. I imagine LSU is similar in that sense, but it's going tobe, to me, a great match-up. You couldn't have maybe two more evenly matched teams, different styles but evenly matched in a lot of ways, and just really looking forward to what our team can do on Saturday night."