Cal women’s basketball looks for fresh start as conference schedule begins

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New year, new Bear(s). After finishing nonconference play with two losses at home, the No. 18 Cal women’s basketball team will look to bounce back in Pac-12 play this weekend against UCLA and USC.

The Bears started the season 9-0 and were ranked as high as No. 13, but back-to-back losses to No. 1 UConn and unranked Harvard have Cal entering 2019 with some uncertainty. A team looking to compete for a conference title shouldn’t lose to unranked 6-6 teams — especially not at home.

“I’m not a big believer in ‘everything happens for a reason,’ ” said head coach Lindsay Gottlieb after the Harvard loss. “It’s what you do about it. We have to decide that this makes us better.”

Cal will need to be better against UCLA and USC, two unranked but solid teams.

UCLA (8-5) is coming off of an Elite Eight appearance last season, but the Bruins are not the same team they were a year ago. Three starters — All-American four-year starter Jordin Canada, three-year starter Monique Billings, and two-year starter Kelli Hayes — graduated, and their departures have hurt.

Nonetheless, UCLA has won five straight games, with the most recent by 7 points over USC. Leading the charge for the Bruins is sophomore forward Michaela Onyenwere, who is averaging 15.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. She does most of her damage from the mid-post and on the offensive glass but has been inconsistent scoring the ball — putting up four 25-point games as well as four single-digit outings in just 13 games.

The Bruin backcourt is led by seniors Kennedy Burke and Japreece Dean. At 6’1”, Burke is a taller guard who puts up 14.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest, and Dean is a volume scorer who can create for others and pull up from beyond the arc.

As a team, the Bruins shot just 40.9 percent from the field and 24.9 percent from behind the arc, but with streaky scorers in Onyenwere and Dean, UCLA has the ability to get hot.

USC (10-2) has had a season similar to Cal’s so far: After starting 9-0, the Trojans have dropped two of the last three games, first to then-No. 23 Texas A&M and then to UCLA.

The Trojans are a guard-heavy squad, led by the Moore sisters. Older sister Mariya is a senior in her first season with USC after transferring from Louisville, where she was First-Team All-ACC as a sophomore. Minyon, a junior, leads the team with 15.2 points per contest and ranks seventh in the nation with 6.8 assists per game.

Off the bench for USC is the promising freshman guard Desiree Caldwell, a member of the USA Basketball U18 squad and the sister of Cal guard Receé Caldwell. The weekend will be full of reunions for the elder Caldwell, as she played her freshman season at UCLA before transferring to Texas Tech and then to Cal.

Despite the Trojans’ strength in the backcourt, USC lacks a presence in the post, as the starting frontcourt duo for the Trojans averages just 11.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game combined. So Cal’s Kristine Anigwe, who alone nearly doubles the combined numbers of the two USC forwards, should rebound well from her two lowest-scoring games of the season.

Last season, Cal finished fifth in the Pac-12, but this season, the team’s eyes are on a conference championship, and the Bears will have the chance to flush the end of 2018 away and kick off Pac-12 play with a couple wins this weekend.

Tim Sun covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].