Salt Lake City certainly is a long way off from Canada — the former has an abundance of Mormons, the latter, moose. Yet the leading scorers on the Utah women’s basketball team both happen to hail from that frozen tundra to the north.
Sophomores Michelle Plouffe and Taryn Wicijowski rank eighth and 10th, respectively, in the conference in scoring. And on a team that prefers a spot amidst the lower rungs of the Pac-12 rankings, the two Canadians are the only threat the Utes will muster against Cal in Thursday’s 7 p.m. matchup at Haas Pavilion.
“They’re a strong, physical, really dynamic post tandem that we’re going to have to do a really good job of defending,” said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb.
The last time Cal met Wicijowski was a fluke, one in which the 6-foot-3 forward only posted one field goal in 31 minutes of play.
But Plouffe is another story. The power forward has consistently paced her team this season with 14.4 points per game. When Utah (13-12, 6-8 in the Pac-12) hosted the Bears more than a month ago, Plouffe racked up a game-high 19 points — the equivalent of her team’s score at the end of the first half.
Until recently, Cal (20-7, 11-4) was also a squad that relied too heavily on its post play. However, the Bears have since abandoned the narrow-minded strategy in favor of an expanded repertoire.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Cal’s performance in Oregon last weekend. The team swept the Ducks in a 3-pointer bonanza before turning to, surprisingly, its free throws two days later against the Beavers. Despite its rank of 321st in the nation (of 336 schools) in that free throw shooting, the Bears shot a respectable 72.7 percent.
“Teams have to pick their poison a little bit against us,” Gottlieb said. “You can’t shut down one aspect of us and expect to win. We can find a way to win, even if a team comes with a game plan that takes away one thing.”
Winning against Utah is more of a guarantee than the challenges the Bears have faced in recent weeks, which include close shaves against a hot-handed Arizona State, a burgeoning UCLA and three games decided in overtime.
However, with three games left on the regular season and a mere two-game lead of second place, the Bears are anything but complacent.
“You see teams that are all kind of bunched up together,” Gottlieb said. “Teams can have five or six-game winning streaks or losing streaks, but they can all be within five points.
“You have to control the things you can control — for us, that’s tempo and not letting (the opponent) be comfortable in our own gym.”
Thursday will likely become a contest between bigs. With so much emphasis placed inside the paint, the contest will inevitably boil down to offensive boards and second-chance points.
This matchup is one of parity broken only by the fact that the Utes’ slow pace trips up opponents eager to push the tempo — teams like Cal. The Bears were the victims of what Gottlieb warily calls a “methodical” offense, but a spectator might call sluggish.
Utah’s preferred speed (or lack thereof) confounded the Bears the last time the two schools met on Jan. 15. Cal wasted 20 minutes giving into Utah’s strategy before bursting into the second half on a 10-0 run that left the home team gasping and delivered the Bears a 63-56 victory.
“Obviously, they want to play really slow and control the game,” Gottlieb said. “So we have to speed them up a little bit, make them play faster than they want to go.”