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Kristine Anigwe ready to help return Cal to national prominence

Through three games this season, Kristine Anigwe is averaging 19.7 points and 12.7 rebounds, and shooting 57.1 percent from the field. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Kristine Anigwe spent the first two years of her college basketball career as a great individual talent playing for a Cal program that wasn't quite able to keep up.

When the junior center arrived in Berkeley, California, from Phoenix, just more than two years had passed since Cal's first Final Four and its first Pac-12 Conference championship. Anigwe was the No. 1-ranked post player in the country, recruited to an elite team coached by one of the most thoughtful, player-centered coaches in the game in Lindsay Gottlieb.

But if the recipe for basketball success is supposed to be to add a nationally elite talent to a nationally recognized power and -- poof -- championships will follow, it hasn't worked out that way. Yet.

As the Pac-12 has surged over the past two years, bursting with stars and emerging powers such as Oregon State, Oregon, UCLA and Washington, Cal has fallen back into the pack.

In Anigwe's freshman season, Cal finished 15-17, went 4-14 to finish 10th in the Pac-12 and failed to make the postseason for the first time in 11 years. Last season, the Bears ran to a 13-0 nonconference start before faltering in league play and finishing with a 6-12 record, good for seventh place. Still, the Bears earned an NCAA bid and reached the second round before falling to Baylor.

Anigwe's individual play has been the brightest spot. In her debut season she averaged 20.5 points and 9.3 rebounds and was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year as well as the U.S. Basketball Writers Association's National Freshman of the Year. Last season, Anigwe averaged 21.0 points and 9.3 rebounds. She had 16 double-doubles, and in 12 of those games she finished with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds.

She owns the Cal single-game scoring record after putting up 50 points against Sacramento State in December 2016, and is the first player in program history to average more than 20 points per game in her first two seasons.

But the team success hasn't come quite as easily.

"Everyone knows I can score and now people need to see us win," Anigwe said. "I've averaged 20 points a game and we've lost. It's not who can score the most [individually] that's most important. It's winning."

Chiney Ogwumike found a way to do both, and the former Stanford star has turned out to be an unlikely mentor for Anigwe. Following last year's Pac-12 tournament, the two spoke for a long time. Ogwumike -- who played in three Final Fours and graduated as the Pac-12's all-time scoring leader for men and women -- reminded Anigwe that she came off the bench as a freshman to start her career. Ogwumike also pointed out that she didn't have to face the double- and triple-teams that Anigwe did as a young player, and that the good and the bad of Anigwe's experiences would prove valuable.

"The trials and tribulations are all useful," Gottlieb said. "I do think she wants to be really good and she wants our team to be really good and that it's not the same to have individual success and not as much team success. She sees the big picture."

The picture is coming into focus as Anigwe begins a new phase of her career as an upperclassman and a leader. Cal is off to a 2-1 start this season and ranked No. 21 in this week's AP Top 25.

Anigwe sustained what Gottlieb called a "minor" knee injury in the Bears' fourth practice of the season and sat out until the season opener.

"We felt like we dodged a bullet, because it wasn't something that was season-ending, but for someone who lives and breathes basketball, it was an adjustment for her," Gottlieb said. "Through that process, I could see her growth and maturity. She had to find other ways to contribute, to figure out a way to be a leader and do her rehab, to get herself better without being out there every day.

"She would tell you that she wants to be in better shape, that she wanted to have more reps, but I told her that she can't change that. And I've seen her handle a tough situation really well."

Anigwe said she is happy that this Cal team has some depth and experience, not to mention "hunger and fight."

"Nobody wants us to fail," Anigwe said. "We've got talent and we need to go out and do what we can do."

Last week's loss at top-ranked Connecticut was a glimpse at some very high standards.

"If you lose, then you learn," Anigwe said. "I just want to learn and improve."

Perhaps the truest test for this Bears team will come once the conference season starts and the frustrations of the immediate past will be either discarded or perpetuated.

"We don't want to wait until it is to be do-or-die in the Pac-12 before we are up and running," Gottlieb said. "We don't want to wait to rep in practice only when it's a big game. We need every rep in practice to be the way we've handled our business the whole year."

Anigwe, who has been known as a true back-to-the-basket post, has increased the range on her jumper to pull defenders away from the basket. She has become more aware of how defenses are playing her, of how to find open teammates.

"The best players are very efficient," Anigwe said. "They make quick reads and the right play and they are good teammates. I need to be efficient. I worked on finishing, around the basket, at the free throw line, around the rim. What I have really been focusing on is me being the best that I can be."

And she has become more vocal.

"When you are a freshman or a sophomore, you get to just come in and perform," Gottlieb said. "But now she can talk to people about what we are doing at practice, communicate about what we are doing on defense. That awareness, that the better everyone else is, the better our team is going to be. Her role will be a big one, but she understands that we don't want to be relying on her alone."

Anigwe said she is trying to lay a foundation for her final two college seasons.

"I came here to win, and have fun and build something," Anigwe said. "I really want to leave a mark here. You can't be a good player on a bad team, that's not leaving a mark. I want to be good on a great team. I want to win a championship. I want it all."