Cal women’s basketball set to face Utah in Salt Lake City

Ethan Epstein/File

The Cal women’s basketball team (12-13, 3-11 Pac-12) will travel to Salt Lake City on Friday to take on Utah (14-11, 6-8), in a battle of two of the Pac-12’s floundering squads.

The Bears are tied for ninth in the Pac-12 and have seen youth and a lack of depth completely tear apart what had been built in a solid slate of nonconference games. The Utes, meanwhile, have fared better in the Pac-12 and have two times as many conference victories as Cal. But like the Bears, Utah has struggled as of late, losing seven of its last nine games and only defeating the Pac-12’s 6-19 punching bag, Colorado.

On paper, despite Cal’s wholly unimpressive record, the Bears should be the superior team. Cal scores more points per game, allows fewer points, has a higher field goal and three-point percentage and has a better turnover margin than Utah, which is last in the Pac-12.

But the young Bears have still failed to close out and win games when they were well within reach of victory — eight of their losses have come by 10 points or fewer.

“There is a way you prepare and a mentality you have over 30 games, and (the Cardinal) have a consistency level that we don’t have because of our youth,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb after a five-point loss to Stanford. “They have lost some tough games, but they have beaten everyone they are supposed to beat, and for us that is where we have been inconsistent.”

The Bears’ last matchup against Utah on Jan. 10 was emblematic of Cal’s second half and late-game shortcomings. The then-No. 21 Bears dominated the first half and led 49-31 going into the break.

But in the second half, they started missing their shots, coughing the ball up and allowing open looks to the Utes’ shooters. This proved to be a recipe for disaster, as Utah won the second half by 23 points to push Cal to a 1-3 hole in the Pac-12 that it would never climb out of.

“These are young mistakes, and urgency mistakes, and we have to learn the lesson very quickly that every possession matters whether we are winning or losing,” Gottlieb said after the loss. “We’re a young group and we are completely focused on trying to be better and trying to win every game because every opportunity to play in this conference will not be easy.”

In both postgame pressers, Gottlieb stressed her team’s youth as a deciding factor and this holds some merit. The Bears don’t have any seniors and only one junior — forward Courtney Range — gets substantial playing time.

Instead, they’ve turned to underclassmen, most notably freshman forward Kristine Anigwe, who leads the team in scoring. She averages nearly 20 points a game but has taken a step back in conference play.

While it’s not fair to say the forward has struggled — she still has scored 17.8 per game — Anigwe has certainly had more lackluster showings than she did to start the season. She seemed to get back on track in Cal’s last game, a 19-point win against Arizona, scoring 24 points.

The Utes will come into Friday’s game with a frontcourt star of their own in redshirt sophomore Emily Potter. She averages 15.7 points and 10.3 boards per game and dominated Cal in the teams’ earlier matchup, with 20 points and nine rebounds, as Anigwe struggled to handle Potter on both ends of the court.

“Every mistake that I made, she made me pay for it,” Anigwe said after the loss. “Every time I reached over, it was a foul. Every time I didn’t pump fake, she blocked my shot. I didn’t expect her to be as good as she was, and I hadn’t played someone like her before.”

If Anigwe can repeat her performance from the Arizona game and slow down Potter this time around, the Bears will have a chance. Cal will need contributions from more than just Anigwe, however, if it truly wants to make up for its disappointing loss when it takes on the Utes.

Hooman Yazdanian covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian