Bears Edge Tigers, 55-52, in NCAA Tournament


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By Viet Nguyen, Staff Writer
Posted Mar 18, 2017
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2017

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Waco, TX--The California Golden Bears ran out to a quick lead, saw LSU tie it late, and then made the necessary plays down the stretch to pull out a 55-52 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The ninth-seeded Bears were carried by their super sophomores, as Asha Thomas had six threes on the way to a game-high 18 points, while Kristine Anigwe shook off a poor first half to make one big play after the next, including a game-saving block and clutch free-throws.

"At the risk of sounding cliche, that was a survive-and-advance moment, or 40 minutes," said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. "For Kristine to have the second half she had, shows her growth and why she's an All-American, and Asha played 40 minutes and turned the ball over once knocked down six threes."

"I can't say enough about giving Cal the credit," said LSU head coach Nikki Fargas. "They did what they needed to do. I thought Thomas had an unbelievable night from the three- point line, and we missed some of our defensive coverages."

LSU was paced by senior Alexis Hyder, who had a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. The Tigers stayed in the game with their 19 offensive rebounds, which led to 19 second-chance points.

Cal notched its 20th win of the year, while LSU ends its season at 20-12.

Anigwe scored on Cal's first possession, as the Bears looked to attack the paint. Alexis Hyder knocked down a shot from the top of the key to knot the game at two all.

Cayton got aggressive, scoring on consecutive drives. Hyder hit another long jumper, but Thomas responded with a three, and Cal had the 9-4 advantage.

The Cal defense dared the Tigers to shoot from outside, and LSU struggled to find the basket.

CJ West grabbed a rebound off a missed three and put it back in. Cowling converted a steal into a fastbreak hoop, and the Bears led 13-4 with 3:10 to go in the first.

LSU found success attacking off the bounce, earning trips to the line and hitting three consecutive free throws to close within 13-7. Cowling found West inside for a score, and then the junior closed the period with a long three as Cal grabbed the 18-9 lead.

The Cal zone continued to stymie the Tigers, but the Bears could not take advantage on the other end. Anigwe struggled to find space and repeatedly had the ball stripped.   

"I was really nervous," said Anigwe. "I was shaking before the game. The first half was a struggle for me."

"I credit LSU," said Gottlieb. "They force turnovers. That's why they're in this Tournament."

Rina Hill finally hit a three for the Tigers, and LSU was within 21-14.

Thomas hit her third three of the game, and Cal was back up by 10.

"I was nervous--my first time in the Tournament," said Thomas. "But I just embraced the moment; you never know when you'll get this chance again. Take advantage of it. So I just let my nervousness out and played my game."

Hyder continued to take advantage of the opening left her by the Cal defense, hitting another jumper. Hyder scored again, this time on a putback, as the Bears failed to box out on rebounds.

LSU had managed to avoid fouling for the first 16 minutes of the game. Hyder finally got whistled at 3:33 in the second quarter. The second foul on LSU came quickly thereafter, but on the play, Anigwe was also whistled for her second, sending her to the bench.

Rina Hill hit another three, pulling the Tigers within 26-21. More second chance points kept LSU in the game, as the Tigers had 13 offensive rebounds in the first half.

Asha Thomas kept Cal ahead, knocking down her fourth three, and the Bears led 31-25 after at the intermission, despite holding LSU to 28% shooting.

Hill popped open for another jumper, and Anigwe matched her with a score inside.

Anigwe soon picked up her third foul fighting for position, and exited the game with 5:25 in the third.

Another second-chance basket, this time by Ayana Mitchell, drew LSU within 35-31.

After another Cal turnover, Moncrief ran it all the way back, and LSU was within two.

Thomas sank her fifth three to keep Cal ahead.

Chloe Jackson's steal and lay-up and then a mid-range jumper tied the game at 39, with 1:27 to go in the third.

Two Anigwe free-throws closed the period, with Cal up 41-39.

Jackson scored on a drive at the end of the shot clock to again tie the game, and the two teams traded baskets. Another Jackson jumper gave LSU its first lead, 45-43, with 7:31 to go.

A three-point play by Anigwe returned the lead to Cal. Two more free-throws from Anigwe, and Cal was back ahead 48-45.

"I had to get used to everything," said Anigwe of her improved play. "Different refs, different players we've never seen before. I just did what I could to win. I didn't want to go home; we didn't want to go home. Asha was hitting all her shots, so I just focused on rebounding, blocking shots, defense, bring energy."  

Another second-chance opportunity for LSU gave the Tiger a free-throw and Anigwe's fourth foul.

Cayton drove and dropped off a pass to West, who scored to put Cal ahead 50-46.

After another Mitchell free-throw drew LSU within a basket, the Tiger defense held Cal to a missed three at the end of the clock. LSU's defense sped up the game, and Moncrief's steal and subsequent free throws made it two point game, 50-48.

Cal called time with 3:18 to go as Gottlieb tired to calm her players.

LSU went right at Anigwe, and Mitchell scored inside to tie the game.

Determined to isolate Anigwe, LSU's offense became stagnant, resulting in a missed Moncrief jumper.

On the other end, a harassed Anigwe somehow found Thomas in the corner, and the sophomore knocked down her sixth trey of the game, and the Bears were up 53-50, with 1:19 to play.

"They were denying Kayla [Cowling] and left me open," said Thomas. "I caught the ball and knew I had to knock it down."

"Unbelievable," said Gottlieb. "She shot the heck out of the ball in practice yesterday. So when the first one went down, I felt really good about that. To see her growth, to come through in a big-time game and knock down shots... It was pretty impressive."  

Jackson responded on the other end, her jumper bring the Tigers within one with a minute left.

The Bears turned the ball over one more time, failing to inbound the ball or to call time, and LSU had possession with 32.2 to go.

Fargas called her last time out, and the Bears needed one more defensive stop.

Hyder drove on Anigwe, but the Cal sophomore stayed strong and swatted the shot. The ball caromed out to Thomas, who fell on it and held on for the jump ball. Possession Cal, with 8.1 to play.

"I knew we had a time-out left," said Thomas. "But I just wanted to get the ball, make sure we secured it.  

After a time out, the Bears got the ball to Anigwe, who was fouled with 6.9 to play. Anigwe hit both, giving Cal the three point lead, and after Moncrief's three fell short, the Bears danced into the second round.

"We're used to being in close games," said Anigwe. "We're comfortable with each other, and we know how to overcome adversity: 2 point game, 3 point game, calling time out, when to foul, who to foul, hit big shots and big free-throws."

"Those are the moments that coaches love, when we see players rise to a different level," said Gottlieb. "I could not be more proud of our players' grittiness and toughness to pull it out when it wasn't the easiest."

Cal moves on to face host and top-seeded Baylor, who beat Texas Southern 119-30 earlier in the evening. The Bears will play the Lady Bears on Monday, March 20, at 8pm.

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