The No. 18 Cal women’s basketball team is headed to sunny southern California this weekend, but there will be no time for celebrity hunting or beachgoing.
The Bears (18-7, 10-4 Pac-12) are back in second place in the Pac-12, and they hit the road looking to cement their place at the top of the conference standings with only two weeks to go in the regular season. On Friday, Cal meets UCLA (12-14, 6-8) for an 8 p.m. tipoff at Pauley Pavilion. Two days later, the Bears will make the short trek eastward to take on USC (16-10, 9-5) for a noon game on Sunday.
Cal has recovered from something of a rough patch to rip off four straight wins, against Washington, WSU, Arizona and, most recently, a double-digit victory over then-No. 15 Arizona State. Juniors Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray have been outstanding during the winning streak. Boyd’s speed in the backcourt has consistently left opposing guards gasping for air, while Gray’s dominance in the paint and on the glass has given Cal a vital inside presence.
In addition to the stellar play of Boyd and Gray, the Bears have received a major boost from All-American forward Gennifer Brandon, whose resurgence on the court couldn’t be coming at a better time for Cal. The senior was unavailable for much of the early season due to injury and unspecified personal reasons, but she returned to the squad in January. Since then, Brandon has been steadily regaining the form that made her one of the most revered post players in the nation last season.
“The last several weeks, Gen’s trajectory has been in an upward direction,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “She’s feeling strong again. There aren’t too many teams in the country with a player coming on this late in the game, so that’s a real factor for us.”
UCLA will look to experienced forward Atonye Nyingifa to slow down Brandon on Friday. Nyingifa is averaging 19 points and nine rebounds per game for the Bruins. She is supported in the backcourt by sophomore guard Nirra Fields, who is UCLA’s second-leading scorer, averaging 17 points per contest. Fields erupted for 26 points in the Bruins’ last outing against the Bears, but Cal won by limiting Nyingifa to only eight points and three rebounds. Although UCLA holds the homecourt advantage this time around, Cal is expected to beat a Bruins squad that has managed only six wins in conference play.
On Sunday, the Bears will hope to exact some revenge against USC. In a 77-70 loss to the Trojans on Jan. 24, Cal shot a paltry 36.4 percent from the field and a far worse 9.1 percent from 3-point land. In addition to improving its offensive output, Cal will be focused on stopping USC’s leading scorer, Ariya Cook, who exploded for 34 points the last time the two teams met. The junior shot a sensational 11 of 21 from the field and 5 of 10 from 3-point range in that game, and the Bears will need to prevent such a clinic from recurring if they hope to win.
With only two conference games to play after UCLA and USC, a sweep of the Los Angeles schools this weekend would help Cal solidify its place at the top of the Pac-12.
Josh Netter covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].