The No. 20 Cal women’s basketball team has an all-world center and two seniors who have each played in 100 games.
But it was a freshman who made the most clutch plays in the Bears’ season-opening, 87-80 victory over St. Mary’s on Friday night at Haas Pavilion.
With Cal nursing a three-point lead in the closing 30 seconds, Kianna Smith made four straight foul shots and stole Jasmine Forcadilla’s entry pass in between the trips to the free-throw line to secure the victory.
“Kianna was absolutely huge down the stretch,” Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “For a freshman point guard to have that kind of pressure and come through was really big for us. … I think there are many good things you can say about Kianna, but her poise might be at the top of the list. …
“When it was time to be counted on, it was like she had done it thousands of times before.”
The five-star prospect out Troy High-Fullerton (Orange County) had to make the pressure-packed plays because Cal blew a 13-point lead and was trailing 73-71 with less than five minutes to play.
St. Mary’s got 22 points, eight rebounds and four assists from Stella Beck, 17 points from Megan McKay and a double-double from Sydney Raggio. The Gaels scored 30 points on 61.1 percent shooting in the third quarter to storm back into the game.
But after McKay’s layup put St. Mary’s on top by two with six minutes to play, Cal scored nine of the game’s next 11 points to take an 80-75 lead. Forcadilla split two free throws to trim the Gaels’ deficit to 80-77 with 30 seconds to play and set the stage for Smith’s heroics.
“The thing I’m most proud of, how we kind of took a punch in that third quarter and stayed composed and stayed together,” Gottlieb said. “I would have rather extended the lead and gone up by 20, but that didn’t happen. But we responded to that really well.”
Honorable mention All-American Kristine Anigwe returned from a knee injury that sidelined her for about five weeks to lead Cal’s balanced attack with 17 points, including 15 in the second half. Playing in their 100th career games, Penina Davidson had 10 points and 12 rebounds and Mikayla Cowling added 13 points and six assists.
Cal ended a high-level first quarter on a 14-3 run, turning a 16-9 deficit into a 23-19 lead. Anigwe, who picked up two early fouls, returned to the game, and the Bears featured a full-court press during the run.
St. Mary’s made three-pointers on three consecutive possessions, including one by Madeline Holland that tied it 34-34 midway through the second quarter. But Cal responded with a 13-2, half-closing stretch — a run that came mostly with Anigwe on the bench after she took an inadvertent shot to the head and then returned briefly only to pick up her third foul.
Anigwe, who managed just one field-goal attempt in the first half, scored six third-quarter points. St. Mary’s, however, had five scorers during a 14-5 spurt that tied it 66-66 heading into the fourth quarter.
Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron