Cal seeks to find groove against speedy, rejuvenated Ducks

The Cal women's basketball team clinched second place in the Pac-12 in a home victory over Colorado on Saturday.
Carli Baker/File
The Cal women's basketball team clinched second place in the Pac-12 in a home victory over Colorado on Saturday.

When the Cal women’s basketball team plays Oregon at 7 p.m. Thursday night in Eugene, Ore., you can bet on one thing with certainty: There will be lots of points.

That certainty was confirmed when the two squads played each other in Haas Pavilion to open the new year. It was a shootout between the two fast-paced teams, as the Bears (18-7, 9-4 in the Pac-12) mauled the Ducks, 90-67. From the start, points were as readily available as the food in an all-you-can eat buffet. By the end of the first half, Cal led the Ducks, 54-36.

The opportunity for the Bears to play Oregon’s anemic defense at Matthew Knight Center  — dead last in the Pac-12’s scoring defense rankings with 75.6 points allowed — could not come at a better time.

Cal played underachieving basketball last week in its home games against UCLA and USC. The Bears had trouble handling the ball, committing 25 turnovers against the Bruins. Against the Trojans, Cal was doomed by poor shot selection and free throws shooting.

After winning eight of their previous nine games, the Bears were a shadow of their former selves last week. But the team has already brushed past its lackluster performances.

“I tried to not let our team get too emotional about the USC game,” said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “We tried to tell ourselves, ‘Cal cannot beat Cal.’ We must take care of the things in our control.”

The Ducks’ highly entertaining yet defensively deficient basketball comes from their head coach, Paul Westhead. For old-school college basketball fans, Westhead is a coaching legend, known for his innovative style of the run-and-shoot “Paul ball” at Loyola Marymount in the 1980s.

“If you let them go at it, they will score as many points as anyone in the country,” Gottlieb said.

Twenty years later, the “Guru of Go” has brought that style to Eugene with little success. The Ducks are all offense and speed but have very little defense and size. The guard-heavy team has struggled to match against post-focused Pac-12 squads like Stanford, Washington and Cal.

But in recent weeks, the Ducks (14-11, 6-7) have found some defensive stability and size down by the basket. Forward Amanda Johnson, who missed 11 games due to a thumb fracture, has scored 20.8 points this season, quietly emerging as one of the best players in the conference.

But nonetheless, this game will be a battle of the guards. As Oregon guards like Jazmin Holliday and Nia Jackson fly up and down the court, the game will hinge on the Bears’ perimeter defense — the same defense that disappeared against Ariya Crook in the USC game — to shut down their speed.

“We did a good job on offense in finding gaps and space last time we played Oregon,” Gottlieb said. “They’ll have a tough time stopping us. We just need to get the stops on the other end.”

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