Streaky shooting and porous defense continue to hurt Cal women’s basketball team

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It’s the rollercoaster ride that every Cal fan knows — the one that starts with hope but plunges into disappointment. The Cal women’s basketball season has followed this unfortunate narrative, and on Friday, the Bears suffered their worst defeat of the season, falling 87-74 at No. 21 Utah.

Things started off well for Cal. Eager to build on their two-game winning streak, the Bears came out firing, hitting two three-pointers and two jumpers to take a 10-2 lead.

Three consecutive turnovers, however, gave Utah a chance to get back in the game, and with three minutes left in the first quarter, the Utes took a 16-14 lead.

After their early success from the perimeter, Cal continued to shoot jumpers, but shots stopped falling for the Bears and started falling for the Utes. Utah hit five straight field goals to end the first quarter and went on another quick spurt in the second, scoring seven points in under a minute to push the lead to 13.

These short runs wrote the story for the rest of the game. The Bears took a methodical approach to cut the lead, but every time they got within six, the Utes would quickly extend it to double-digits again.

The second half brought the same back-and-forth struggle, but Cal began to lose focus. While the Bears continued to settle for three-pointers, going 3-12 in the second half, the Utes pounded the paint. And unlike Cal’s approach to feed star center Kristine Anigwe and get out of the way, Utah chose to spread the floor five-out and use its quickness to generate backdoor opportunities.

Whether on elbow back-screens or ball-denial back-cuts, the Utes caught the Bears ball-watching and took advantage for wide-open layups. In particular, Utah leveraged the skill set of Dre’Una Edwards. Defenders sagged off of her because she can’t shoot from the perimeter, but Edwards showed off her passing ability by finding teammates on backdoor cuts.

The Utes finished the game with 38 points in the paint, as all but three of their two-point field goals came in the key. Utah went 52.6 percent from the field to Cal’s 44.1, and the Utes shot 62.9 percent on attempts inside the arc.

Even after a quiet start to the game, senior star Megan Huff exploded for 18 second-half points. Huff hit from everywhere in the second half, going 2-3 from long distance and 6-6 from the line.

The Bears were able to cut the lead to single digits midway through the fourth quarter, but Cal defense couldn’t manufacture enough stops to spark a real comeback. In the end, the Bears gave up a season-high 87 points in their largest margin of defeat this year.

As expected, Anigwe dominated inside, recording another double-double to remain perfect on the season. The support from the guards wasn’t there, as Asha Thomas, Kianna Smith and Receé Caldwell combined for just 22 points and 4-15 from three.

Opposing teams will have to continue to put up with Anigwe’s dominant performances in the paint and force the trio of guards to beat them. So while it is nice that all three have the ability to go for 15 or even 20 points on a given day, Cal is going to have a hard time beating good teams when the trio combines for just 22 points. And in March, this streakiness and lack of a clear-cut secondary scoring option could hurt the Bears.

The immediate concern for the Bears, though, is their defense. Next up for Cal is the toughest stretch of the season, with two weeks of elite competition — No. 6 Stanford, No. 5 Oregon, and No. 9 Oregon State each average over 80 points per game, so backdoor layups and uncontested threes cannot happen if Cal wants a chance to win.

Cal did start in the right direction on Sunday with a 80-60 win over Colorado. Thomas, Smith and Caldwell all got hot from beyond the arc, combining for 38 points in support of Anigwe’s 16, and the Bears held the Buffs under 40 percent shooting.

The victory marks Cal’s first conference road win and should keep spirits up heading into the gauntlet of top 10 teams. Any remaining hope of a Pac-12 championship that existed coming into this weekend, though, is gone.

Utah won every quarter against Cal and went on to upset Stanford on Sunday. So Utah is for real, and will contend for the Pac-12 title while Cal simply won’t. Now sitting at 4-4 in conference play, the Bears will need to knock off one of the four remaining ranked teams on their schedule just to match their 11-7 Pac-12 record from last season.

We’re at the part of the rollercoaster ride where we’ve begun our descent, and unless Cal pulls off an upset in the next couple weeks, the freefall won’t end soon.

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