Veterans Bears open season against Lehigh

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After a top-15 preseason ranking, the Cal women’s basketball team has a lot of hype to live up to.

A win against Lehigh should get the ball rolling.

The No. 13 Bears will host the Mountain Hawks on Friday night at 7 p.m. in Haas Pavilion in their season opener.

Though the Bears open a new season, practices and games should be nothing new to any of the players. The team impressively returns four of its starting five and 11 of its letter-winners. The only change on Cal’s squad is redshirt transfer Brittany Shine, who won’t see the court this year per NCAA transfer rules.

Leading the experienced Bears is guard Layshia Clarendon, who recently placed on the Preseason All-Pac-12 team. The senior led the team in scoring last year with 12.8 points per game and shot an impressive .413 from the field, the highest percentage among the team’s guards.

The other senior starter, Talia Caldwell, joins Clarendon as the  only player to have started every game last year. In those 35 matches, the Pac-12 honorable mention All-Academic delivered an 8.4-6.7 line. Her rebounding prowess also has her as the Pac-12 active career rebounding leader.

By contrast, Lehigh’s starting lineup only has two returners. Last year’s two leading scorers graduated, taking with them a total of 24.0 points and 15.2 rebounds per game. That accounts for 35.2 and 34.2 percent of the team’s total points and rebounds, respectively.

Now, Lehigh’s leading scorer is senior guard Kelly Peterson. Though she averaged 9.5 points per game last season, the next-highest scoring starter, guard Hilary Weaver, only notched 4.9.

The Mountain Hawks are also starting a true freshman in her first collegiate game. Kerry Kinek, a 6-foot-3 forward, was a two-time first team All-State player at her high school in Pennsylvania.

When she’s not guarding Caldwell, she’ll have the unenviable task of checking Cal’s two dominant forwards: Gennifer Brandon and Reshanda Gray. The pair exploded on offense — especially the sophomore Gray, who registered  10.5 points and 6 rebounds per game last year.

While the Bears usually have size as a massive advantage, Lehigh has the size — at least on paper — to match. Alexandra Yantzi, a junior forward, is taller than both Caldwell and Reshanda at 6-foot-5.

Whether the Mountain Hawks’ bigs can use their size effectively remains to be seen. Their current leading rebounder is a 5-foot-8 guard with 4.0 rebounds per game. Lehigh’s best chance to pull off an upset will come from the line. The team shot 72.6 percent from the charity stripe, a notch far above Cal’s paltry 60.8 percent. But if the Bears show up on defense, Lehigh shouldn’t have too many opportunities to spoil the season opener.

“The team’s been really committed to using the offseason to get better, and there’s a really good feel about the team right now,” Gottlieb said. “We’ll see a team that’s faster, better defensively and hopefully sharper across the board.”

Vincent Tzeng covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]