With strong defense, Cal women’s basketball hopes to continue winning streak against UCLA

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With the way the Cal women’s basketball team has been playing defense the past three weeks, it doesn’t seem like the team plans on losing again anytime soon. And, fresh off an upset win Sunday over then-No. 10 Arizona State, the Bears have now won seven straight. They’re playing much better basketball than they had been playing during their slump earlier this season.

Following a 2-0 road trip in Arizona, Cal (19-5, 10-2 Pac-12) will be at Haas Pavilion when UCLA comes over to visit for these two teams’ second game of the season Thursday night. The Bruins (10-13, 6-6 Pac-12) will be entering the game as the underdogs and will try to avoid an outcome similar to that of Jan. 25, when the Bears went to Los Angeles and walked out with a comfortable 72-57 win.

In that win, senior guard Brittany Boyd led the way with 24 points, eight assists and five rebounds. But, as impressive as her final stat line was, what was even more impressive was her lockdown defense, particularly on UCLA junior guard Nirra Fields.

With more than 330 shot attempts, Fields accounts for nearly 25 percent of all her team’s shots. This season, the Bruins have struggled from a lack of depth and offensive options. As a result, UCLA relies heavily on Fields to produce and provide scoring. She’s her team’s volume shooter.

With a game plan in which a lot of it has to be force-feeding Fields, the Bruins have had trouble this year. Teams understand that UCLA has limited options, and if opponents can shut down Fields, the Bruins are likely going to have a very difficult time finding other sources of offense.

Fields shot just 8-24 on Jan. 25. Nothing came easy as she scored just 19 points, turned the ball over six times and was not playing efficiently. Even though Fields was struggling, UCLA kept calling her number. The team overall only took 57 shots, which meant Fields was responsible for 42 percent of her team’s total field goal attempts.

Field’s struggle was a testament to Boyd’s performance that day. She was aware that in order to defeat UCLA, it was crucial that she and her defense contained and made Fields uncomfortable the entire game.

Unless the Bruins make severe and drastic changes to their system, or find a new player, Cal might not have to play much differently from the way they did the last time they met. On Thursday, it’s going to start with defense. And, if the Bears can lock up Fields, they should be able to take control of the game quickly and easily.

As the trend has been during Cal’s seven-game win streak, victories have rarely come as a result of hot shooting or having a Bear blow up offensively. Neither team has been shooting well, with Cal missing many missing shots. Even though at times it doesn’t seem like the Bears can hit anything, they are still creating and getting open looks. And the little points they get are usually enough. But unlike their opponents, Cal isn’t getting shut down defensively.

Of course, Cal can’t just use five players and form a human circle around Fields. UCLA still has other players. Jordin Canada and Kari Korver are both averaging more than 10 a game — although together are shooting below 40 percent.

The Bruins don’t have many offensive threats. Compared to the teams the Bears have played the past four games, UCLA has fewer weapons, and Cal will be entering Thursday as the heavy home favorite.

Ritchie Lee covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].