Kristine Anigwe hops onto the trainer’s table after practice, grabs a pair of scissors and quickly cuts off the athletic tape that supported her right ankle through another day as one of the top women’s basketball players in the nation. Moments later, she lowers her 6-foot-4 frame into an ice bath — first a grimace as her fists clench in reaction to the cold, then an open-mouthed grin as her eyes light up.
This very moment provides a metaphor for Anigwe’s tremendous growth over the course of four seasons at California that has the senior forward on the cusp of becoming the all-time leading scorer in program history.
“I had to be very, very confrontational with myself,” she said. “I had to understand that I am going to live with myself for the rest of my life, so why not invest in myself. … I had to really kind of look myself in the mirror and say, ‘I want to change these things about myself, and I’m going to, and I will.’ And I had to be grateful for my opportunities that I’ve had in the past and grow from that.”
She is playing better than ever. Realizing the Golden Bears needed more, she took it upon herself to become a better rebounder — and began the week leading the country, in men’s or women’s Division I, at 14.9 rebounds per game.
“There’s no two different personalities. It’s one personality, you are the same on and off the court,” said Anigwe, who endured a trying 2018 away from basketball that brought her down at times. “It’s an advantage for me to know who I am off the court … I get comfortable on the court because I’m not pretending to be anybody. I am a passionate player. I am emotional, but who doesn’t want to have those emotions? When people come to see me play, they’re inspired. I want to be a person and a player that inspires people to maximize their full potential or maximize who they are off the court.”
Things haven’t always been easy for Anigwe, who was suspended by coach Lindsay Gottlieb for one game twice during her career. But now with 2,275 career points and a 50-point game to her name, she needs just 46 points to break Colleen Galloway’s school career scoring record of 2,320. She could do it this week when Cal plays a home-and-home against rival Stanford.
“I even have to take a step back and realize this girl has gone through a lot but there’s growth, and I’ve seen it,” senior point guard Asha Thomas said. “Just like parents do with kids, they see their kid is two years, then five, then 10, I get to see that with Kristine. Not only am I happy for her, but that’s crazy. And it’s only four years, and it goes by quick. It’s very special to see. I’m glad I was on the journey with her and vice versa, her with me.”
Anigwe isn’t counting where she ranks on any statistical charts. She’s not considering where she might go in the upcoming WNBA draft, either.
“For me to slip away from the moment would be a disadvantage for myself and for this program,” she said. “All the little things all matter — little things like practices before a big game, before game stretch, the speech. You have to be present.”
Last weekend at Colorado, she picked up two quick fouls only 90 seconds into the game. If she was mad, she didn’t show it outwardly, something that might not have been the case even last season. Instead, Anigwe used that opportunity on the bench to encourage her teammates. She went on to record her 19th double-double of the season and 20th consecutive dating to her final game last year.
Opponents used to acknowledge they would try to push Anigwe’s buttons, knowing she might get mad, perhaps enough to rattle her.
“In the past I was known, ‘get her angry she won’t be as focused on the game,'” Anigwe recalled. “I think opponents would try to get under my skin, but I feel like that’s a disadvantage for them (now), get under my skin it just increases my level of play, because I understand who I am off the court. I’ve been being very intentional with who I am and making the next steps of growth and evolving and becoming.”
The Bears missed the injured Anigwe in their first-round loss to Virginia in last season’s NCAA Tournament.
She is stronger now, more consistent, doing all the little things, including essential mental preparation.
“She has really, truly kind of transformed as a person,” Gottlieb said. “It’s been really amazing to watch. I have a lot of admiration for where she is, where she’s going, where she’s come from. It’s an ongoing process. I think she’s just constantly been on a quest for self-improvement, betterment as a basketball player and a person. When you truly undertake that journey, it’s not always a straight line.”
Anigwe and Thomas are so in sync that Thomas recognizes a mismatch with Anigwe in the post two or three passes before the play develops. They can look at each other and understand what’s going on without speaking.
It’s a special bond for the two leaders of a team that nearly took down top-ranked Connecticut before hitting a rough patch.
“I’m inspired by her,” Thomas said. “I may have not said it personally to her, but I’ll say, ‘I really love you,’ this and that. It’s definitely a blessing to see somebody grow, and really develop as a person not only for others but for themselves, and they truly and genuinely love taking care of themselves for the betterment of everybody else.”