When the Cal women’s basketball team travels to Los Angeles to play UCLA on Friday, it will be faced with a reminder of what this season almost was.
The last time the Bears (10-7, 1-5 Pac-12) took on the Bruins (12-5, 4-2) was at Haas Pavilion in December, and Cal won a thriller in double overtime, 108-104. That victory — in what was technically a nonconference game — took the Bears to 8-2 and established Cal as a team that looked ready to contend for the Pac-12 crown a year before anyone thought possible.
Now, however, Cal looks like the young team that was projected in the preseason to struggle with its lack of depth and experience, as the Bears have no seniors on their roster. Cal has lost five of its last six games and is looking to right the ship after a tough opening stretch to the conference season that has the Bears tied for second to last in the Pac-12. UCLA will come into the game hungry to extend Cal’s recent woes, especially after having lost to the Bears already this season.
The Bruins are one of only two Pac-12 teams with two scorers in the conference’s top 10, so Cal will have its hands full defending guards Jordin Canada and Nirra Fields. The duo combined for 50 points the last time these teams met, and they will surely be raring to do even better if it means finishing the job this time around.
Canada and Fields comprise the backcourt for one of the nation’s most prolific scoring teams and, at 78.9 points per game, UCLA sits atop the Pac-12’s scoring leaderboards. This doesn’t bode well for the Bears, who sit 10th in scoring defense and field goal percentage allowed.
With stopping the Bruins looking unlikely, Cal will need to slow them down and turn to its own offense to win it the game. On that end of the court, the Bears are led by freshman forward Kristine Anigwe, who has been named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week a record-tying seven times already. She is the second-highest scoring freshman in the nation and her 21.2 points per game is also second in the Pac-12 overall.
Cal will look to feed Anigwe early and often — she takes almost 14 shots per game. Her ability to take — and make — so many shots is crucial for the Bears, because the offense works best when it exploits Anigwe’s efficiency in the post. Opposing defenses know to be wary of her back-to-the-basket touches, so they sometimes double her before she even gets the ball. This makes things much easier for the other Bears, as they’re guaranteed to have an open player who can either take her shot or take advantage of a scrambling defense.
It’s all made possible by Anigwe and helped by the fact that Cal’s whole starting lineup is adept at putting the ball in the basket. They all shoot at least 41 percent from the floor except sophomore guard Gabby Green, and even Green buoys the Bears’ offense through her role as one of its primary facilitators.
Where Cal has run into problems is when it has to sit its starters, as the Bears only have one nonstarter averaging close to 20 minutes per game and generally only play eight players in each game. Cal’s starting lineup is often gassed by the ends of games and that fatigue is setting in earlier and earlier as the season progresses, with the wear and tear of so much playing time putting the Bears in a tough position to succeed.
This lack of energy could be the deciding factor in a rematch of two teams that seems fairly even, despite UCLA’s better recent record. If Cal, which hasn’t played since Sunday, can get past this, however, it will have a chance to get itself back in the thick of a competitive Pac-12 race.