Playing as a team.
Playing for each other.
Kristine Anigwe says those three things have been the difference for the Cal in its program-best 9-0 start and a top-25 ranking in the latest USA Today Coaches Poll.
It probably doesn’t hurt that the near-consensus National Freshman of the Year already has six double-doubles and is fourth in the nation in scoring, averaging 24 points per game.
So much for the dreaded “sophomore slump.”
And while heralded in high school, few could have guessed how much of an impact she would make in the early stages of her college career.
Anigwe committed early in her junior year at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, at a time when head coach Lindsey Gottlieb and her staff was searching for a post player to step in and play major minutes upon the eventual departure of Reshanda Gray.
“From the time she committed to us to the time she graduated high school, she improved by leaps and bounds,” Gottlieb says. “I knew we had what I thought would be the best post player on the West Coast, and she ended up, I think, the best post player in the country in that class, so it was cool to see the development even before she got here.”
While the coach thought she could make an immediate difference, and perhaps slot into the starting lineup, averaging 20 points and nine rebounds a game was not the expectation.
“Where she surprised me was her consistent ability to score on the collegiate level as a freshman,” she says. “That is rare for a post player. She surprised me with her ability to use her right and left hand coming in, and the thing I think that has stood out the most is how competitive she is, and how much she loves the game of basketball.”
Despite Anigwe’s strong freshman campaign, Cal stumbled in Pac-12 play after starting the season 9-2, and finished 15-17 without a postseason appearance. In the offseason, the 6-foot-4 forward says she focused on improving her defense, along with her ball-handling when faced with the double-team.
“I didn’t expect so much tension in the post,” she says, “so this year I’m more comfortable passing [it] out, and playing for my team, playing defense and doing the little things.”
Gottlieb mentioned her improved strength and conditioning as another area of growth.
“She’s always been a really good athlete,” she says, “but now, I think she’s in better shape, meaning that she can play hard for longer periods of time.”
Expanding her perimeter game, and the mental aspect of her performance has also improved, according to the coach.
“As a freshman, when you’re super talented, you’re kind of just riding on instinct,” Gottlieb says. “This year, I think not only is she using her talent and her instinct, but she’s adding with that sort of a thoughtfulness about the game. What do I need to be ready for? How do I handle double-and-triple teams? I think she’s a better passer out of double and triple teams, but she’s also more aware that that kind of stuff is coming.”
Anigwe’s ability to dominate on the court may have been no more apparent than in a 97-73 win over Sacramento State on Dec. 8. In just 24 minutes, she scored a school-record 50 points (the first time either a Cal men’s or women’s player has hit the half-century mark) on 19-for-23 shooting, while grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds.
“What was remarkable about it,” Gottlieb says, “is we look at each game and we say, ‘What’s the best offensive game plan or defensive game plan?’ We weren’t trying to break any records. We knew that they put a lot of pressure on the ball, and they like 2-on-3s, so we wanted to take care of the ball, and get the highest percentage shot, and that’s what we did.”
Gottlieb calls Anigwe’s effiency that night “beyond remarkable.”
“She makes extraordinary things look ordinary,” she says. “We would throw it up there to her, she would catch it and finish. And in 24 minutes, to put up that number of points, we may not see that again. Sac State plays the same way against everybody, and there’s no other player doing that against them.”
Anigwe says she looks to a pair of former Stanford stars turned WNBA standouts in Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike as an example.
“They always would try to hold their player under their average for the season, and I thought that was cool because no one really values defense like that,” she says.
While she looks up to the defensive prowess of the sisters, her coach had a few other comparisons to her style of play. In particular, there are elements from a trio of former Cal players, all now playing in the WNBA.
Gottlieb sees competitiveness akin to Brittany Boyd, a frequent presence in the gym like Layshia Clarendon, and toughness in the post similar to that of Gray.
“But in terms of style of play,” she says, “she’s really different than all those players.”
Instead, she sees a resemblance to a WNBA legend: Lisa Leslie.
“Lisa Leslie was dominant around the basket,” she says, “but with a frame that was still wiry and athletic, get around you, go through you when you need to.”
Now, as Cal prepares for conference play against a slate of Pac-12 foes, all with NCAA Tournament hopes, the team will look to continue using the game plan that has it off to its undefeated start.
Anigwe may be one of the nation’s top scorers thus far, but she’s one of three Cal players averaging double-figures, alongside Courtney Range and Mikayla Cowling, with a fourth, Asha Thomas, just shy of that mark.
“People have to pick their poison,” Gottlieb says, “and they can’t always triple-team Kristine.”
And both coach and Anigwe agree that the entire team has benefited from being a year older and more mature.
“We’re more hungry this year,” Anigwe says. “We all know what it takes now. We’ve been at the bottom, and we’ve been successful. We don’t want to get to the bottom again.”