Freshman Anigwe leading Cal women on both ends of court
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Kristine Anigwe’s reply is right on.
The California women’s basketball team gathers at midcourt during a game-day shootaround when associate head coach Charmin Smith puts the freshman on the spot: “Kristine, which team will get the most baskets today in transition?”
“Cal!” she responds with emphasis.
“Good answer,” Smith adds.
Later that night, Anigwe’s key finishes on the very fast break they had discussed hours earlier helped the Golden Bears hold off Nebraska 87-80 in overtime. Anigwe celebrated a three-point play by leaping into the air, showing the athleticism and ability that have made her an instant star in Berkeley and beyond.
Oh, and she can dunk.
Anigwe is learning to pass out of the occasional triple-team and showing up in coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s office with a blanket eager to hunker down and study film.
“I’m just really grateful I’m in this position with great teammates. Without great teammates I wouldn’t have the confidence to play as well as I’ve been playing,” she said. “I don’t think (opponents) really knew me ... I was just tall.”
Anigwe is no secret now.
Teammates went crazy last fall when she slammed one down at practice in a moment made just for her to be part of the team’s introductory video. She also dunked only a day after Gottlieb publicly predicted she would at Pac-12 media day in October. Cal posted that video on social media.
“The day she does it in a game will be phenomenal,” sophomore forward Penina Davidson said. “She has made a huge impact on and off the court. She can catch everything we pass. She’s just a big presence on the court.”
Anigwe leads the team with averages of 21.5 points and 9.6 rebounds as Cal looks to snap a three-game losing streak in Friday’s Pac-12 game at UCLA, a team the Bears beat 108-104 in two overtimes last month. She has a National Freshman of the Week honor on her long list of accomplishments already, to go with a conference record-tying seven Pac-12 freshman of the week honors.
After a loss at Arizona State in the Jan. 2 Pac-12 opener, former Stanford star and current Connecticut Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike — who like Anigwe has Nigerian heritage — posted a photo of the two of them on Twitter.
“Tough one for Cal but this girl right here is something special! People will know Kristine Anigwe very soon,” Ogwumike wrote with a thumbs-up icon.
Sure, Anigwe would love to dunk in a game before her Cal career is through. Yet for now, she prefers reliable layups so she doesn’t put too much added pressure on herself or hurt the team trying to do too much.
“Really it’s not a priority as long as she’s playing well, being a good team player and having good behavior. I am pleasantly surprised, but surprised,” her mother, Annette, said of her daughter’s quick rise in the college game. “I thought it would take time for her to adjust.”
Annette is known to send text messages to her daughter during halftime of games, “and she tells me if I’m not rebounding or not doing something right.”
″‘Box out. Keep it up. Pass it out when they double-team you,’ little things I see she can improve on,” her mom said of such communications. “I’m not her coach. When I’m not there and I didn’t send a note she knows I didn’t watch.”
Others are paying attention, too.
Anigwe has a nationwide support system. She and four of her USA Basketball teammates have a regular message chain they use to keep tabs on each other from afar, offering congratulations on a big performance or an encouraging word after a tough game.
There’s Te’a Cooper from Tennessee, Connecticut’s Katie Lou Samuelson, Louisville’s Asia Durr and De’Janae Boykin, who transferred from UConn.
Since arriving in Berkeley, Anigwe has been working to find the right times to be aggressive rather than just jumping the way she used to and picking up fouls. Anigwe doesn’t plan to force the issue of dunking.
“There’s a lot of pressure sometimes and I feel like I can’t do it in front of a huge crowd, because I don’t practice it regularly,” she said. “As I get more explosive throughout the years I’ll be able to dunk in front of more people. Now, I can do it in front of my team because I’m used to my team, so if I mess up a lot I can keep going.”