Cal women’s basketball begins Pac-12 tournament as No. 4 seed

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With March underway, every game the Cal women’s basketball team plays is going to have a lot more meaning. Even though the tournament doesn’t start until later this month, the Bears are still going to have a huge weekend ahead of them when they travel up to Washington as the No. 4 seed in the Pac-12 tournament.

Because of how the brackets are set up, Cal’s seed is good enough to earn a first-round bye. So in entering the tournament, the Bears will get to relax for a minute while No. 5 seed Washington and No. 12 seed Utah play each other in the first round.

In a tournament such as this, Cal will have to play multiple teams, so it’s going to be difficult to focus on any single opponent. But when the Bears take on the winner of Washington and Utah in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, every game they play will be an elimination game.

If there’s no upset, Oregon State, the tournament’s No. 1 seed, will be waiting further down the bracket. And as evidenced by the Beavers’ comfortable 73-55 stomping over Cal last week, Oregon State is going to be trouble for any team and will be the clear favorite to win this competition. Despite the Bears’ season-low six turnovers committed, that was not enough for Cal to overcome Oregon State shooting 50 percent shooting and avoid the blowout.

But Oregon State likely won’t show up until the semifinals. As of right now, the Beavers are future Cal’s problem. What the Bears need to focus on is preparing for the winner of Washington and Utah.

The favorite for that first-round matchup is going to be Washington. Having played the Huskies twice this season and lost to them once, Cal will be looking at a team it is pretty familiar with. Although Washington took one game away from the Bears this season, the Huskies’ win Jan. 11 was not a convincing one. Washington barely won with a 79-77 finish and, even then, it took 20 fouls called against Cal and 30 free-throw attempts. Throughout the game, the Bears’ main rotation players faced foul trouble, and the Huskies were rewarded with free points as they went 24 of 30 from the line.

The next time these two teams faced off against each other was different. Washington only got 15 free throws and could not amass enough offense via the charity stripe to make up for its mid-30 percent shooting from the field. Instead, most of the attention during that game was focused on Reshanda Gray, who dropped 27 points and 14 rebounds on Cal’s way to an 82-58 blowout.

One of the best winning formulas against the Bears is to take advantage of their short, 10-women roster by forcing the officials to blow the whistle and get them into foul trouble. When it comes to Washington and Cal, the latter is the better team by a significant gap. But the Bears mostly only utilize a six- to seven-player rotation. And when the Huskies employed the strategy of initiating contact and forcing foul calls, Cal did not have the depth to make up for the players forced to take a seat and, as a result, lost.

The talent concentrated in the Bears’ starting rotation is enough to overcome most teams. And when that is taken away, the talent disparity between Cal and other teams is drastically narrowed. As long as Gray, Brittany Boyd, Mercedes Jefflo, Mikayla Cowling, Gabby Green and Courtney Range can stay on the floor, there should be no reason for the Bears to lose to a team such as Washington or Utah.

This idea of taking limiting foul trouble extends beyond just the semifinals. In last week’s one-sided loss against Oregon State, Cal’s best player, Gray, played just 29 minutes but still came away with 20 points and seven rebounds. She finished the game with four fouls, but if the Pac-12 player of the year could have played between the 32-40 minute range, that possibly could have had an effect in making the score closer.

Keeping the core players on the court has a strong causal effect on Cal’s success. If the Bears undergo foul trouble, their chances of winning shoot way down. There is a lot of pressure on just a few players, who have the burden of taking on the responsibilities of facing other teams who have deeper rotations and give their key players rest. This weekend, the Bears are going to have their work cut out for them if they plan on going deep into this tournament.

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