Tomorrow night, 11-seed Cal women’s basketball will take on six-seed Utah in the opening round of the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Seeing as the Bears won just two conference games all season, one of which was a default win over an Arizona State side that forfeited due to COVID-19 complications within the program, a tournament dedicated to interconference competition might just be a Cal fan’s worst nightmare.
In any case, sparing a last-minute postponement, head coach Charmin Smith’s team will take to the court Wednesday night at 8:30 p.m., PST, at Michelob Ultra Arena.
Cal women’s basketball beat writer William Cooke and sports editor Ryan Chien share their thoughts on the Bears’ chances in this year’s conference tournament.
In what ways might Cal be a dark horse in the tournament?
Will Cooke: Cal’s sole outright conference win came back in early February when Leilani McIntosh hit a game-winning 3 to beat USC in Los Angeles. Since then, the Bears lost all seven conference games they played, including a 75-80 overtime loss to their first-round opponent, the Utes.
In other words, Cal is this year’s most unlikely dark horse contender. The Bears did force overtime against Utah a few weeks ago in Haas Pavilion after going up by 11 points in the first quarter, so a first-round upset isn’t out of the question. But beyond that, Cal fans don’t have good reason to believe this year’s conference tourney will be any different from last.
Ryan Chien: Last year, Cal women’s basketball had no identity — as exemplified by having only one win the entire season. This year is a bit different. The team has a now-veteran guard in McIntosh, who walked off of USC with a game-winning 3 earlier this season. Likewise, the blue and gold have got all-around weapons, such as Dalayah Daniels and Evelien Lutje-Shipholt, who can stretch the floor and anchor the paint. And, of course, they’ve got their crown jewel in freshman Jayda Curry. If Smith sets up an offense that the conference’s lead scorer in Curry can thrive in, Cal can be a tough out for any Pac-12 foe.
Who are the toughest opponents Cal may face this week?
WC: In the unlikely event that the Bears make the second round, they will have to play No. 3-seed Washington State. In their loss to WSU last weekend at Haas Pavilion, the Bears fell into such an insurmountable deficit early in the game that, despite a valiant late-game effort that saw the Bears go on a 19-3 run, they still lost by 6 points. Cal fans can only hope the excitement of a second-round appearance would prevent the Bears from a bad start, but based on recent performances, a flat-footed opening half is most likely.
RC: Up against the sixth-seeded Utes from the get-go, 11-seed Cal is already an underdog. However, its last contest against them was competitive — a 75-80 loss in overtime — gives the Bears at least a puncher’s chance this second time around. What Cal really has to worry about is its potential second- and third-round opponents. A No. 3-seed Cougars squad, who beat the Bears 73-67 this past week, is a less-than-favorable matchup. Presumably facing an even tougher No. 2-seed Oregon team afterward would be exponentially more difficult, especially given that Cal has lost both of its matchups against the Ducks by an average margin of 20 points this season.
What should the blue and gold faithful expect from the Bears in Las Vegas?
WC: They should expect Cal to play Utah close and stay in the game until the very end. They should expect the Bears to limit turnovers and defensive gaffs that lead to easy buckets for the Utes, both of which Cal has struggled to do all season. This is an experienced team: McIntosh, Cailyn Crocker, Jazlen Green and Lutje-Schipholt are all third-year players who have been here before. To expect a first-round win might be unrealistic, but a sloppy loss would be inexcusable.
RC: One good game by Curry will be enough to carry Cal past the first round. Beyond that, though, the Bears’ trip to Vegas will be short-lived if other players don’t step it up in the scoring department. They have a lot of pieces that do all of the little things — rebounds, blocks and everything in-between. Setting up Curry to get open looks is imperative. But that dependence on the team’s only player averaging double digits in scoring will ultimately be its Achilles’ heel. Cal could very well see action Thursday. Any day thereafter would be a shocking surprise.